For more than 40 years, Gary Lucarelli has been a pivotal player in the local restaurant scene. We have him to thank for helping make Cleveland a true dining destination, and for training some of our best local talent.
The 69-year-old restaurateur was born in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood, where his grandfather and father were the proprietors of a grocery store that bore their name. As an adolescent, Lucarelli spent time in St. Louis, and at the tender age of 12, he officially kicked off his restaurant career.
"As a kid I worked every position: I was a wine steward before I was old enough to legally drink!" says Lucarelli.
Pondering a career path as a teacher, Lucarelli was nudged in another direction by his manager, who saw in him an aptitude for restaurant management. He soon changed majors and ended up at Michigan State University. Everything was going fine until he got booted from a serving job during college.
"I got fired when I was flaming a shish kabob and caught the table on fire," Lucarelli recalls. "The owner put out the fire and then fired me."
But the infamous shish kabob incident did nothing to deter Lucarelli from his dream of owning his own restaurant one day. Armed with a hotel and restaurant management degree, Lucarelli soon found himself at the epicenter of all men's dreams: the Playboy Club. At just 22, he was the company's youngest manager, overseeing the Chicago Playboy Club along with the Playboy Mansion on North State Parkway. His talents—and responsibilities—only mounted from there.
"I was manager of the Phoenix and Baltimore clubs, but decided to pursue my true love: restaurants," says Lucarelli.
So Lucarelli returned to Chicago to head up the famous Blackhawk Restaurant. "This was a huge downtown restaurant," he says. "Here, I gained valuable experience in managing employees in a center city environment." But the arrangement didn't last. "I wanted to get back home to the city I loved, Cleveland."
He returned to Cleveland in 1972, when he joined forces with Cleveland's famed Don's Lighthouse Inn. With Lucarelli's leadership, the restaurant group grew to include Don's Butcher Block in Lyndhurst, Don's Fishmarket in Illinois and Don's Pomeroy House in Strongsville.
At age 40, Lucarelli ventured out on his own, opening Sweetwater Cafe in the soon to be developed Playhouse Square area. "I was scared to death about downtown Cleveland, which was like a ghost town in those days," he says. "But we were instantly successful."
When the State Theatre opened nearby, practically every star who performed there dined at Sweetwater, including celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Robert Goulet, and Yul Brenner.
"This was the beginning of the resurgence of downtown, and Sweetwater was the catalyst," boasts Lucarelli.
From there things started moving fast for the kid from Little Italy. Developer Richard Jacobs asked him to open a restaurant in the brand new Galleria Mall, and he opened Cafe Sausalito in 1987. "I am proud to say it is still open to this day," says Lucarelli.
In 1992, Lucarelli purchased Players on Madison in Lakewood and updated it from a pizza and pasta joint to a proving ground for world-class chefs. Michael Symon, David Lucarelli, Dion Tsevdos, Ryan Merriman and Michael Herschman are just some of the chefs who have worked their way through Players' kitchen. Soon after, Lucarelli opened Tutto a Posto, an upscale Italian bistro near Shaker Square.
In 1996, Lucarelli married his wife Matty, who has been very involved in the business. "Matty helps in the marketing and helps to set the ambiance of the various restaurants we have been involved in," says Lucarelli.
That same year, the duo opened Sweetwater Landing at the Emerald Necklace Marina. Then, in 2001, they opened Star in Playhouse Square. "In a very challenging theater setting, this restaurant was popular," he says.
But now, after 40 years in the Cleveland hospitality industry, Lucarelli has condensed his focus to just one restaurant. "My goal today is to continue the fine tradition of Players."
Looking back on his body of work, Lucarelli can't help but feel blessed. "I guess few people get to do what they love in life. I was lucky."