Independent Restaurateur of the Year: Nick Di Donato, Liberty Entertainment Group

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Photo by Nick Wong

Nick Di Donato’s passion for restaurants was ignited at a young age. At 15, he got his first taste of restaurant work as a busboy at Lorenzo’s Restaurant, a high-end Italian eatery his father owned in Toronto’s Dufferin and Dupont neighbourhood. He worked there for four years, learning various lessons on the go and inculcating his love of the hospitality industry. By the time he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science and Professional Engineering degree, he realized the only thing he wanted to engineer was success in the restaurant industry.

For almost three decades, Di Donato has been doing just that, parlaying his passion for restaurants into a thriving multi-million dollar hospitality company with 1,300 employees. The 60-year-old Italian native has reached the pinnacle of success by understanding the importance of a diversified portfolio and of being opportunistic.

Looking back on his successful career, Di Donato learned some of the most important lessons working alongside his dad — including the importance of diversification. Di Donato recalls watching his father’s successful restaurant dwindle as the neighbourhood and city changed before his eyes. “I said ‘I can’t have that happen.’ My mandate is I have to change to stay the same,” says Di Donato, explaining “if you don’t have your finger on the pulse of the city, it’s hard to be a leader and be successful.”

With that in mind, Di Donato was determined to ensure that Liberty Entertainment Group, a company he owns with his brother Pat, would offer something for every occasion — casual-dining eateries, nightclubs and event venues, as well as fine-dining restaurants. “If one area seems to decline, I’m always in good shape,” offers Di Donato, who counts among his holdings The Spice Route, a nightclub/restaurant; three Cibo Wine Bar casual-dining restaurants in Toronto and two in Flordia; and event venues such as a golf and country club in Coral Gables, Fla. and the Liberty Grand and Casa Loma in Toronto.

It’s been a busy year for the restaurateur, with the opening of two additional high-end restaurants in Toronto — the 160-seat upscale BlueBlood steakhouse at Casa Loma and, in June, the company debuted its piece de resistance, Don Alfonso 1890 — an 80-seat restaurant housed in what was once the company’s Rosewater Supper Club.

Two years ago, Di Donato did what Canadian restaurateurs rarely do — expanded into the U.S. He and his wife Nadia, who designs the company’s stable of restaurants, had regularly travelled to Miami, but it wasn’t until their son moved there to attend the University of Miami that the two started spending between four and six weeks a year there. “It gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture and the city and to look for a business opportunity,” explains the father of two.

Fast forward two years and Di Donato now has a solid team in place in Miami, which means he doesn’t need to be there more than once a month for management meetings.

Di Donato admits it took time and effort to sell the casual-dining authentic-Italian concept to Americans who, he says, were more comfortable with the Olive Garden style of Italian food. “Authentic Italian is part of our culture here, but not so much so in Miami,” explains Di Donato. “So, we had to stick to our formula and educate the market there to some degree. We found our biggest clients were Italians from Italy…who said ‘this is real Italian food.’”

Opening a steakhouse at Casa Loma was yet another highlight — one that revitalized the venue and cemented the company’s standing in the community. “Casa Loma is an incredible heritage property, which I believe was completely under-utilized,” says Di Donato. “It was focused on tourism and not on engaging Torontonians. When we first took over the property, our objective was “This is the city’s castle and, as such, Torontonians should be able to enjoy it. The question was how to do that?”

The answer lay in focusing on what Di Donato does best: melding entertainment and food to draw locals and tourists alike. All told, the businessman invested $12 million ($3 million of which was spent to open BlueBlood) to revitalize the castle. “We created Symphony in the Garden, Soul in the City and recently Comedy at the Castle. For each of those nights, we now have more than 1,000 people sitting in the garden of the castle enjoying the atmosphere, the entertainment and the food. It’s been a tremendous success in engaging Torontonians and a huge asset to the city.”

But the work didn’t stop there. Di Donato saw Casa Loma as more than just a tourist draw. He believed it could also house a great destination restaurant. Given the castle’s great bones, it wasn’t hard to do. The steakhouse encompasses two rooms: the formal Oak Room, which Di Donato says is one of the most beautiful rooms in the country, and the Billiard Room, an informal bar area that features the same menu.

Opening a steakhouse made sense for Di Donato. “Because we’re in a heritage building, we were limited in kitchen capacity.” And because a steakhouse requires grill space rather than stove-top space, it meant the kitchen didn’t need to be large. “It’s not an inexpensive steakhouse,” admits Di Donato, with dinner averaging about $200 per person. “We’re providing the best quality and showcasing the best steaks in the world: Wagyu beef, Kobe beef and steaks from Japan, Australia and Canada,” says Di Donato. “We have our own aging room where we cure the steaks and the most incredible wine cellar,” which, ironically, says Di Donato was the original cellar that had been boarded up during Prohibition.

Was he concerned about launching a steakhouse at a time when plant-based dining is growing? Not at all, says the restaurateur. Liberty opened the steakhouse while it was simultaneously planning the launch of Don Alfonso 1890, which boasts a menu he defines as 50 per cent vegetarian. “Knowing I was opening Don Alfonso, I knew we had a diverse portfolio in a high-end market. The two restaurants are polar opposites. But, we believed the casual-dining market was changing. Toronto is growing exponentially, becoming a world-class city, which needs a more diverse level of food and service.”

To tap into the city’s growing global status, Di Donato identified the need for a high-end Michelin-star restaurant. The project, which took four years to deliver, was driven by Di Donato posing the question, “Where’s the market going and what niche is missing?” says Di Donato. He and his wife travelled to Chile, the U.S., France and Italy to find just the right fit. In the end, he found the answer an hour away from his birthplace in the Amalfi region of Campania, Italy where he discovered Don Alfonso 1890, a three-star Michelin restaurant run by Alfonso Iaccarino and his son Ernesto.

“Their menu focused on vegetarian, organic and seafood. Having the vegetarian component really drew me to them,” explains Di Donato. Since opening its doors in June, the restaurant has generated great buzz and rave reviews. “It’s been a tremendous success for us,” boasts Di Donato. “It’s the kind of restaurant that will take time. Its growth will move slowly, focused and organically,” says the restaurateur, explaining that in the early days, the restaurant only accepted 40 reservations per night, taking weeks to bring it to its maximum capacity. “I didn’t want to open the doors and get 150 people every night. It would be disastrous. It was designed with a one-year plan to get the restaurant to be extraordinary.”

The restaurant is a joint production between Liberty Entertainment and Italy’s Don Alfonso 1890, which boasts a 100-year history. “They’re fully vested in this,” says Di Donato, as it’s the company’s first North American venture.

To ensure the Canadian outpost meets the Michelin-star restaurant’s stringent guidelines, chef Saverio Macri has spent time in Italy working alongside the father-and-son chef duo. In turn, both Alfonso and Ernesto have spent time here. Both the eight-course tasting menu, priced at $150, and the drinks list are created in Italy. “They’re the Michelin chefs, so I’m not going to question their integrity,” he says.

He’s hopeful having a Michelin-style restaurant will make Toronto an even stronger destination. And, for Di Donato, having a strong community is crucial. It’s why, in addition to giving his time to support countless initiatives, his company also donates up to $500,000 annually in sponsorship and support for various charities. He also sits on a number of boards, including St. Michael’s College School, Canada’s Walk of Fame and the TTC. It’s all part of giving back and making the city he grew up in even stronger.

As for the future, what’s left to conquer? “I always have five balls I’m juggling,” quips the award-winning entrepreneur. “It takes time, you look at different niches and then you develop what makes the most sense. I probably won’t do another fine-dining restaurant but I do expect to do more casual-dining and event venues.” Ultimately, he says, you can’t rest on your laurels. “You’ve got to know what’s going on in the city and have your finger on the pulse,” he says.

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