Lettuce Entertain You’s Lavish Italian Restaurant Opens This Weekend

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Even before Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises entered the picture, there were already big expectations for the restaurants that would open inside the St. Regis Chicago, the $1 billion skyscraper that hovers over Navy Pier on Upper Wacker Drive.

Back in November 2020, Alinea Group announced its intentions to partner with the 101-story luxury hotel, which also contains residences overlooking the Chicago Riverwalk. A year later, with restaurants feeling the impact of the pandemic, Alinea canceled plans which left an opportunity for Chicago’s largest hospitality group. Work hadn’t started, giving LEYE a clean slate to design what would become Tre Dita, a lavish spot with 44-foot ceilings and 40-foot windows. The restaurant, officially opening on Saturday, March 16, is going to be a hot spot to watch Navy Pier fireworks.

After Lettuce closed Tru in 2017, the prevailing narrative around town was that LEYE was no longer interested in the fine dining world. Quick serve and casual dining were en vogue, and to an extent, the pandemic proved the popularity of carry-out-friendly restaurants. Now eight years later, Lettuce Entertain is back in the game, first with Miru, the Japanese restaurant on the 11th floor of St. Regis. Described as a “cucina Toscana,” Tre Dita, the Marriott property’s flagship restaurant, is now open. “Tre Dita” means “three fingers,” a reference to the thickness of the signature cut of meat, bistecca Fiorentina.

The Melmans turned to LA chef Evan Funke to shape the restaurant which has been in a kind of soft open mode since February when the bar debuted. For a hotel bar, the design is big and bold and could be easily confused for a separate restaurant. For now, they serve a scaled-down menu with some of Funke’s favorites, a little preview of Tre Dita’s main menu. Eventually, it will evolve to a menu of more refined bar bites. The specialty is Italian beverages like grappa. There’s even a rarity: Italian gin.

Funke worked with Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills and was raised in California. His restaurants, Felix and Mother Wolf, have routinely served Hollywood celebrities. Tre Dita is his fifth restaurant in America. He’s also working on a sixth in Miami. While Chicago lacks LA’s celebrity culture, Lollapalooza takes place nearby, and athletes love the city. There are plenty of private rooms, including one that overlooks the main dining hall that could make Tre Dita attractive to the rich and famous.

Funke chats about knowing that movie stars, successful tech bros, and other guests of note just want to have a normal experience. A key is to make sure their security details are comfortable. Having back entries away from the public eye helps. Funke also says it’s a little easier because most people love what he specializes in, pizza and pasta.

“I did my piece at Spago in Beverly Hills and did that for six years,” Funke says. “I’m good — I don’t want to do tasting menus and small portions. I want to make people happy.”

Customers took to his passion for creating pasta by hand. Funke has immersed himself in Italian cuisine and a signature attribute of his restaurants, including Tre Dita, is a pasta lab. The lab is a refrigerated and glassed room with wood tables that allow the restaurant to regulate humidity and temperature. There are pasta labs in LA, Beverly Hills, and now Chicago.

“So pasta, much like bread, is an animal. It lives and breathes, it’s directly affected by its immediate environment, and controlling the environment is an extremely important thing if you want to produce a handmade product very consistently,” Funke says.

Tre Dita’s bar debuted in February and is so large it could be confused for its own restaurant.

The chef continues: “The connection I really seek is if someone passes by the pasta lab, and they look through the glass and they see a pasta maker repping out continuously thousands of thousands of small shapes and they sit down to dinner and the plate arrives and they see that there’s 150 of these beautiful shapes of pasta within their bowl, and they think back to when they pass by the pasta lab. They go ‘wow, that person just repped out 150 times just for this one place.’ And that guest is never going to look at that pasta shape the same way again.”

Funke has been in and out of Chicago the last three months training staff. He says the goal is about “really sweeping people off their feet and taking them outside of their daily lives through delicious Tuscan traditional food and excellently executed hospitality.”

The chef is an encyclopedia of Italian cooking driven by three bedrocks: connection, reverence, and appreciation. Tre Dita’s menu will contain a variety of unique and obscure shapes of pasta rarely seen on American menus. There’s Tortelli di zucca stuffed with roasted butternut squash and pici (fat spaghetti) that will power the cacio e pepe. There’s also lasagna bastarde. But Funke says he’s not going to alienate people or “force education down people’s throats.”

“I want us to be approachable. I want it to be delicious, and I want it to be fun and ultimately I think we’ve really hit it,” he says.

Four plates of Italian food
The pastas are made in a special glassed room, a pasta lab, that regulates temperature and humidity.

Other menu highlights include Funke’s schiacciata bianca, a fluffy focaccia made with rosemary and Tuscan sea salt. Then there’s fiori di zucca (squash blossoms with ricotta fresca and parmigiano reggiano) and gamberi in salsa verde.

No, Chicago isn’t blessed with the same produce that’s available throughout the year in California. Funke says that presents a challenge, but they’ll happily fly in produce from across the country. But they’ll also bring in fruit and veggies from Michigan and farms in the area. Funke is excited about the Mitten State’s blueberry season, for example.

“I mean, Italian food is 90 percent ingredients and 10 percent technique,” Funke says. “You know, it comes down to really smart shopping a lot of the time and then just not trying to you know try not to fuck it up after that.”

Funke’s relationship with LEYE goes back a few years. After he unceremoniously left Bucato in 2015 in Culver City, California, he says he became determined to work on his weakness. He figured working with Rich Melman would help and moved to Chicago where he lived in a hotel for nine months and consulted with Lettuce, helping them open Italian restaurants like Il Porcellino. He would also collaborate with LEYE in Las Vegas when the company opened RPM Italian in 2022.

“They’re just a very very forward-thinking progressive company and they recognize talent and they grow people very well,” Funke says. “Their leadership infrastructure was something thatI found very important to kind of key in on and that was really what drew me to working with Rich Melman and [son] RJ [Melman].”

The pasta is what Funke is known for, but the beef isn’t an afterthought. Funke succinctly sums it up.

“What I like to say is Tuscans celebrate beef, and the bistecca Fiorentina, and Chicagoans celebrate beef as well,” he says. “So it was a natural fit for me to do this restaurant.”

Tre Dita inside St. Regis Chicago, 401 E. Wacker Drive, second floor, opening on Saturday, March 16, reservations via OpenTable

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