After months of darkness, there is new light — and hope — set to shine on the corner of Galena Boulevard and Stolp Avenue.
On Monday, Roberto Avila, owner of Altiro Latin Fusion, told me he’d just signed an agreement with downtown developer David Karademas to open his fifth restaurant in the former Leland Legends location in downtown Aurora.
Avila, who lives in Geneva, where he opened his first Altiro in 2013, plans to have a grand opening in time for Valentine’s Day. And if it’s to survive, he knows he needs more than the theater crowd walking through those doors.
What would and should be prime real estate — it sits across from the Paramount Theatre and its soon-to-open Aurora Arts Center — has seen more than its share of hurdles, not to mention controversy, after Leland Legends closed unexpectedly this summer because the new investors Karademas had turned it over to a year earlier could not make a go of it after the developer, too, had failed to make it successful.
In September, it looked like the owners of Midtown Pub and Grill which had leased that space from Karademas before it became Leland Legends, would be moving back in. Midtown had enjoyed a long run at that corner, but it was no secret the city wanted a more upscale restaurant to fit its vision for Aurora as an arts and entertainment destination.
Adding to the controversy, officials had experienced past problems with the way Midtown was operated, and in October Mayor Richard Irvin denied the owner a liquor license.
A shuttered restaurant across from the Paramount was indeed a black eye on the city, particularly as the theater was kicking off another season of its increasingly popular Broadway Series, which has turned this downtown venue into the second largest subscription house in the nation.
Karademas had threatened to put a beauty shop in that space in response to the city’s push-back. But behind the scenes he was working aggressively to find the kind of restaurant the “Paramount deserved” and officials demanded.
“Mayor Irvin has been very clear that downtown Aurora is ready for more upscale dining options, and my team set out to compile a list of candidates capable of fulfilling his vision,” Karademas said. “Altiro was on that list. I visited one of their locations to test their cuisine and immediately they became my top choice.”
With locations in Geneva, West Chicago, Roscoe and — this year — in LaGrange, Altiro describes itself online as a “tapas-style inspired Latin fusion cuisine of classic dishes with infused new flavors from Spain, Mexico and South America.” The website also boasts a menu made of all natural and fresh ingredients purchased locally, adding that even its sweeteners are made from “agave-based nectars.”
The 43-year-old Avila, a former professional soccer player and real estate developer in Mexico City, said he learned the restaurant business from the ground up after following family and friends to the Chicago area in 2000. He started off as a dishwasher before working his way up to server, bartender, chef, manager and finally owner of a growing restaurant brand.
In addition to his wife, Erika Villanueva, who has done all the interior design work on their eateries, the couple’s two children, ages 20 and 19, are now running the Geneva location after having learned the business early on “when they were cutting limes and polishing glasses,” their father said.
Family is important to Avila, who insists that’s the way he treats all employees as well as the patrons who come through his doors. It’s all about “giving them the food and experience” that will keep them coming back, he noted.
Let’s hope so because there’s no doubt that location needs more people coming back through its doors.
When Karademas kicked out Midtown Pub and Grill in order to turn that space into a more sophisticated place to eat and drink, he still struggled to attract enough traffic during the day or on the many nights the Paramount marquee was not lit.
So he sold Leland Legends in the summer of 2017 for a dollar to developer Kevin Fitzpatrick, who brought in Michael Poulakidas and Ron Woerman, owners of two successful restaurants in Aurora.
But even they couldn’t make it work; and closed Leland Legends this summer, right before the Paramount was set to kick off its season.
Here’s hoping the third time — or is it fourth? — is a charm.
“David believes in my concept … we are on the same page,” Avila said of his partnership with Karademas. “We are excited to open in Aurora and are hoping for the city’s help.”
Which Irvin promised to give so the new restaurant can “open as soon as possible.”
Describing Altiro as “one of my favorite restaurants” when he was a lawyer working in the Tri-Cities, Irvin said after he was elected mayor, he “drove around St. Charles and Geneva looking for the kind of restaurants he’d like to bring to Aurora.”
Having known Avila since he was a server at another Geneva restaurant, Irvin said he had long admired the man’s work ethic and culinary talents. And so, he set up a meeting, introduced him to Karademas and “it took off from there.”
This is, the mayor noted, “the level of professionalism we are bringing to downtown Aurora.”
Of course, the key will be longevity.
Irvin was more than optimistic Altiro will do well, not just because it offers excellent food but because the downtown, he insisted, is at a turning point. And he points to “so much development breaking ground in 2019” — including the Hobbs and Terminal buildings — as well as the opening of the arts center in March.
“We are continuing to build relationships, meeting the right people,” he said.
But for any business to thrive, of course, it needs the backing of this community.
“I know the Paramount patrons and staff will be very pleased with the latest addition to our growing arts and entertainment district on Stolp Island,” said Karademas. “Nevertheless, the success of Altiro, and the success of downtown Aurora overall, is entirely in the hands of Aurora’s people.”