Make room at the table: How a local restaurateur is helping to transform the culture of professional kitchens

Gina Stefani

By Olivia Lee
Medill Reports

On “Restaurant Row,” also known as Randolph Street, diners spend their savings on an unforgettable gastronomic experience. Just two blocks away, on the quieter Madison Street, lies a stationery store owned by a mother and daughter, a small used bookstore that smells of dusty paper and glue, and a restaurant, MAD Social, that celebrated its fourth anniversary in February.

There, a sprightly hostess brings guests to their tables and, just like clockwork, a server appears and offers water. During meals, busboys “manicure” rustic brown tables and replace used plates with fresh ones. Food runners, servers and bartenders work separately toward a common goal: to provide a memorable meal and exceptional service. Amid the organized chaos, a woman stands dressed in black from head to toe with her black hair tightly pulled back. She strides across the dining room as she brings guests to a table. Then, she scurries into the kitchen and reappears with a perfectly mounted Brussels sprouts salad and a sizzling burger with oozing cheddar cheese melting down the sides. Later, she’s clearing tables. She does all this while checking in with guests, making sure their steaks are prepared medium rare and their pasta is cooked al dente. Meet 35-year-old Gina Stefani, owner and manager of the new American gastropub, MAD Social.

The restaurant joins 14 other establishments as part of the family-owned Stefani Restaurant Group, which was started by Stefani’s father 40 years ago. “So many of my memories growing up, like a special occasion, a birthday, an anniversary or a holiday, were spent within the restaurants and with our staff. All of my favorite memories involve food,” said Stefani, who worked 12-hour days during the summer at Castaways, her family’s boathouse on North Avenue Beach. “I think that’s where I got a taste of the adrenaline rush of the industry. You’re running around in organized chaos.” After working in public affairs and events following graduation from DePaul University, where she studied psychology, she gravitated back to the service industry and to her family. “I missed the chaos…A lot of times you don’t have staff show up, so I end up running the host stand, I’m bussing when I can. I’ll do almost anything except cook,” she said. “I don’t cook. So, I definitely don’t go in the kitchen.”

Growing up, Stefani recalls her grandparents, and now her parents and siblings, doing all the meal preparation, especially on Sundays. “Sundays are family days. It’s a day where you can be in your comfortable clothes, you’re sitting around with family talking and really being present,” Stefani said, adding that she wanted to replicate this atmosphere and make MAD Social an extension of people’s homes. Filled with warm shades of brown and exposed brick walls with a faint scent of vanilla from a diffuser Stefani’s mother gave her just before the grand opening, MAD Social is welcoming day or night, every day of the week. “We have a couple that comes in literally every Friday for happy hour. We have a family that comes in probably like twice a week,” she said. “It’s like being a part of the customers’ lives as well as them being a part of mine.”

Neatly lined on one of the walls of MAD Social, guests can find pictures of longtime staff and, of course, her brother, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. “My dad always said, ‘family first,’” she said. Every year, Stefani and her relatives travel back to Italy and stay at her late grandmother’s house. Although it has since been remodeled, Stefani describes it as “very ‘under the Tuscan sun.’” It’s surrounded by green mountains and adorned in hues of yellow, orange and brown, and a 105-year-old olive tree shades the pool in the backyard. Nearby stands a long table where her family lingered for hours over dinner. “It always started with a pizza,” she said. “Then we’d do a pasta course. Then maybe some salad, you know, to cleanse the palate before you do the meat and potatoes. And then it’ll be a Nutella pizza or gelato. And then some cheese and meat will come out at the end. It’s a dietitian’s nightmare, I’m sure.” For Stefani, these meals let everyone be together as their authentic selves without distraction. This is how she wants guests to experience MAD Social.

Despite frequently changing her menu, Stefani said she plans to keep some things the same: her passion for the restaurant, her cat, Slinky, and her market-researcher husband. Aside from a glass of wine, what else might accompany her night in? Without hesitating, her answers rolled off her tongue. Something sweet or salty? “Salty.” A burger or a hot dog? “Burger.” Pasta or pizza? “How do you choose? Pizza.” Soup or salad? “Soup.” Chocolate or vanilla? “Vanilla.” Coffee or…? Before Stefani could answer, she was interrupted by a staff member needing her help. She apologized, but before rushing off, she turned and said, “As long as you have the confidence and you put the work in, I feel like, you can do anything.”

Photo at top: Whether greeting guests, running food, bussing tables or orchestrating her staff, there is no other job Stefani would rather do than be a restaurateur. (Courtesy of Gina Stefani)