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Eataly's Chicago team is already scouting for talent — and 5,000 grocery items

Opening a restaurant is supposed to take years off your life. How about opening seven? At the same time? And a cooking school? And a supermarket?

That’s what Alex Saper, 30, and Raffaele Piarulli, 26, are staring down the barrel at. The two are in charge of getting Eataly, the 70,000-square-foot Italian food mecca that’s set to open in River North in November, off the ground. The complex will take over ESPN Zone’s old space at 43 E. Ohio St.

“It’s complicated to construct the space that we’re talking about because we’re obviously not just a retail operation or just one restaurant,” Saper says.

Unlike a restaurant, Saper and Piarulli must coordinate a build-out for seven unique concepts that includes designs and furniture shipped in from Italy. And they’ve had their share of headaches in the run-up to construction, including a delay caused when steakhouse Texas de Brazil, the former tenant of Eataly’s future space, filed a lawsuit against the owner of the Shops at North Bridge to fight an eviction order.

But this isn’t Saper’s first rodeo. A New York native, Saper, 30, joined Eataly, a venture backed by celebrity chef Mario Batali, in 2008 after leaving a job in finance at JP Morgan. Since then, he’s been called on to open two locations in Japan and, after spending a year and a half working at Eataly’s flagship in Turin, Italy, helped launch the company’s first U.S. store in New York in 2010.

The notion of a Chicago location followed quickly on the heels of the New York opening. “Serious discussion started about three to six months after we opened New York,” Saper says. “When we saw the space and the location and we spent some time in Chicago, we realized right away that this was going to be [U.S. store] number two,” Saper says.

For Piarulli, the Chicago location will be the first opening that has his fingerprints on it. The 26-year-old has rocketed up Eataly’s corporate ladder since starting as a part-time cashier at the store in Turin while he was still in school. After graduating, he transitioned into a full-time role and asked for more responsibility.

“I spoke with my boss at the time and I told him that I was interested in doing more with the company,” he says. “Six months later, I was in New York and I was being trained.”

Since being dispatched across the ocean in 2010, Piarulli has served as the general manager of Eataly’s 50,000-square-foot New York complex. For most twenty-somethings, that’d be enough responsibility. But Piarulli has wanted to direct an opening since he was pointing the checkout gun in Turin. “I’ve always dreamt to open a store from day minus 300,” he says.

With a location secured and construction underway, Saper and Piarulli are now turning their attention to the people and products who will fill the space. “We have, obviously, on the Italian side of products, all the products that we import already,” Saper says. “But the thing that’s exciting for us is finding the local products in Chicago.” Saper and Piarulli must scout sources for eggs, milk, produce, and anything else that’s impractical to ship from overseas. Saper says that Eataly’s plans will also be a boon for local farms: “We’ll look for what we feel are people who are doing a great job of producing high-quality, small-production products.”

70,000-square-feet requires plenty of hands on deck — 600 full- and part-timers, to be exact — but Eataly hasn’t yet begun staffing up in earnest. “We’re not in full-hire mode, but we’ve started hiring,” Saper says. “Obviously as we get closer it’ll be toward September, October, we’ll be really hiring every day.”

Photo by Heath Sharp