Bella Notte is leaving Chicago, citing crime and business-killing bureaucracy

One of the city’s oldest Italian restaurants announced it would be closing its Chicago location and moving to Downers Grove.

Ramon Aguirre Bella Notte Ristorante Chicago West Town restaurant Italian

Ramon Aguirre, owner of Bella Notte Ristorante, is pictured outside the West Town restaurant Dec. 21, 2021.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The tables at Bella Notte Ristorante were set with white tablecloths, plates and silverware Tuesday afternoon, looking as if the place was ready for a lunch crowd. But one glance at the bar, and guests would see bottles of wine and liquor being inventoried.

The Aguirre family has decided to close its beloved Chicago restaurant, at 1374 W. Grand Ave., just a few weeks before what would have been its 28th anniversary and move to Downers Grove.

“We feel like a failure, especially for my employees,” said Ramon Aguirre, 48, who owns the restaurant with his brother, Victor, and father, Ramon Aguirre Sr.

Ramon Aguirre said Bella Notte closed July 2 for its annual two-week July break. But facing headwinds such as steep fines from the city, crime and third-party delivery fees, the family decided to close the location — announcing it on their Facebook page Monday night.

“Our sign permit expired in November. It’s $75 for the permit but the city fined us $1,000. Same for our awning permit,” Aguirre said Tuesday. “The light on the exit light was out. Instead of letting us repair it on the spot, they wrote us up and gave us a fine. They aren’t business friendly at all. In all, we have $21,000 in fines from the city.”

Aguirre said he reached a deal Tuesday afternoon with officials in Downers Grove to move there and expects to be open within 60 days.

“They welcomed us with open arms and gave us a lot of rent and tax incentives,” he said. “There I can pick up the phone and talk to the mayor and the leaders of the chambers of commerce ... Here, I can’t even get the alderman on the phone.”

Bella Notte’s last food inspection listed by the Chicago Department of Public Health took place July 20, 2022, according to city data. The restaurant passed with conditions, although no information about those conditions was available.

Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman Jacob Martin said it has not conducted any inspections of Bella Notte in 2023 and speculated the fines may be from the city’s Department of Buildings.

Officials at the Building Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Aguirre said the restaurant survived the pandemic without taking any relief funds by making food deliveries as far away as Oak Brook and Schaumburg. It’s now forced to close because of a perfect storm of hardships, he said.

Among the insurmountable hurdles is crime in Chicago, poor records by the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Bulls that no longer bring fans for pregame meals before heading to the nearby United Center, high third-party delivery fees, and a city council that’s no longer friendly to independent businesses, Aguirre said.

“No one comes to the city from the suburbs anymore. Crime is out of control — gun violence, car jackings, you name it,” Aguirre said. “How can you take your family out to eat if you’re worried something is going to happen?”

Aguirre added that real estate taxes have cost the restaurant a lot — the building has been for sale for almost a year — and the cost of coming to the West Loop is not worth it for many customers.

“Everything is a money grab,” he said. “Speed cameras, red light tickets, valet parking — it all adds up. DoorDash, Grubhub and Uber Eats have killed us. They were charging 30% for deliveries. What happened to the city capping it?”

In September 2021, the Chicago City Council capped third-party delivery fees at 15%. In response, many of the delivery apps created a $1.50 “Chicago fee” as a way to recoup lost revenue. The cap expired in October 2021 and since then has slowly crept back up.

Aguirre said this past month the restaurant was down to eight full-time employees from 30 in its heyday. It was making between $10,000 and $12,000 a week, down from $25,000 to $30,000 when it was busy.

The restaurant was founded by Ramon Aguirre Sr., 73, whose story is an example of the American Dream. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 15 and opened Bella Notte on August 24, 1995, after working in the industry for several years.

Several employees of Aguirre Sr. went on to open their own restaurants in Chicago, including Benny Siddu from Volare Ristorante Italiano, David Flom from Chicago Cut Steakhouse and Ignacio “Nacho” Bautista and Víctor Quezada from Gio’s Cafe & Deli.

Aguirre said no one from the city reached out about working with him to stay in Chicago, something he described as “a slap in the face.”

Ald. Daniel La Spata, whose district includes Bella Notte, did not respond to requests for comment.

Aguirre is excited to begin a new chapter in Downers Grove, but he fears for other independent restaurants in Chicago.

“The mom-and-pop, single operator is going to be nonexistent in this city. It’s sad.” Aguirre said. “It’s not the city I grew up with. When I was a kid, there was nothing more I wanted to do than to come to the city on a Thursday night. You’d come down and feel safe, go out to dinner and then go [to] cabaret before going home. Not anymore.”

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