Henri Najem in the redesigned Bella Vita Lakeside dining area featuring lowered ceiling elements, lighting, and new booths.

Henri and Shelley Najem chose the name Bella Vita, which means Beautiful Life, for their Geist restaurant when they opened at Brooks School Road and Fall Creek in 1998. They were happy to find a location where they could realize their dream of operating a restaurant and work together – Henri in the kitchen and Shelley out front with the customers.

They also loved the fact that the location was situated in a growing, family-centric community and felt this would allow them to really get to know the customers who dined with them. “This has always been so important to Shelley and me,” said Henri as he reflected on those first few years at Geist. It wasn’t long until Bella Vita became the place to eat at Geist, and the small restaurant with just 180 seats soon grew to capacity crowds, especially on the weekends.

When Henri heard that the Blue Herron was available, he met with the owner of the property and building, Allen Rosenberg, Sr., and soon the deal was closed. “You always think that bigger is better, and we had to admit that the chance to expand our seating was indeed motivating.” The decision to move into a much larger space and the water-front location was made, and life changed for the Najem family.

Their new Bella Vita spot boasted 500 seats in the summertime with the need to have 100 servers on board to handle the dining customers visiting during a typical busy seasonal flow. Add to that an expansive need for 25 bartenders, 40 people in the kitchen area, and having to add 3 managers to help in the front end of the restaurant.

“We grew big, and I have to admit there was a certain amount of panic when we expanded so fast. We were now working at a whole new level of dining and trying to manage over 1,000 dinners on a Friday night alone. It was a major adjustment in food and customer volume for us,” he admitted.

“You always think bigger is better, but sometimes the trade off of being big hits you with losing out on the time to enjoy both sides of the business. Shelley and I sat down last year and revisited why we love our restaurant and how we wanted to move forward. Our customers shared they missed the warmth of our old location. We also took in the comments on Yelp and Facebook – good and bad – which is not always easy to do. The experience we had gained from working 24/7 these last several years helped us realize the changes we needed to make – for our customers and for us as a team,” concluded Henri.

Bella Vita’s Henri Najem stands in his expanded bar area featuring 10 new flat screen televisions, booths, and raised booth seating.

And so the changes began. In late January, the name changed from Bella Vita Ristorante to Bella Vita Lakeside, announcing a more casual dining experience and atmosphere to come.

Next, they dropped the ceiling down from 35 feet and added beautiful new lighting. They fitted 15 more new booth spaces inside the dining and bar area creating a more intimate experience. A painting of the walls decision delivered a move away from the previous earth colors to vibrant tones such as oranges and yellows, which creates a color swatch that matches a sun-setting waterfront view.

“We were only closed for three days at the end of January for painting,” said Henri. “It would have made more sense to close for the entire month since January is usually slow anyway; but closing would have really hurt my staff, and we just couldn’t do that to them.”

A new enclosed porch with a dramatic open fireplace which has flames glittering from the center of colorful stones creates a unique dining environment that can be opened year-round, giving customers a lakeside dining experience even when there is snow on the ground.

“We have also added 10 new TV’s to our bar area as sports viewing is part of our new design. It carries a familiar ‘Cheers-type’ setting with a casual atmosphere for customers to spend time while cheering on a favorite team. We are in the middle of a wonderful neighborhood, and we wanted to create a destination for sports viewing – something customers have been asking for over the years,” said Henri.

Bella Vita has also made changes with new food items appealing to more tastes. You can now order American staple items such as sandwiches and great appetizers. They are testing new items such as fillet and tuna sliders that really add a new take on their healthy eating menu. One of the most popular new items on their new menu is their new fresh-baked wings. The secret is in the 1,000-degree wood stone oven that allows the crispness on the skin to remain without deep oil frying: so much healthier and the taste is incredible.

Don’t worry; Bella Vita is still retaining their great Italian dishes such as the very popular crusted Parmesan chicken and other long-time favorites. “Shelley and I have also worked to lower our pricing as we retain our commitment to serving quality food – good food at affordable prices with the same great view,” Henri stated as he spoke of all the changes.

Henri and Shelley’s commitment also extends to their entire staff. Recognizing that most diners base their satisfaction on not just the food but, indeed, the service, they have put in place a personalized training program for their servers that helpS with the learning curve for those workers who are seasonal in nature. The key ingredient is training Bella Vita servers to Henri and Shelley’s expectations, not their previous experience.

Most of Bella Vita’s kitchen staff has been with Henri and Shelley for over 8 years. They are like a family, and all are involved in making Bella Vita a wonderful place to go for a lovely experience every time you visit. Henri says in closing, “For all of us, we are renewed when a customer says, ‘This was a fantastic meal and we really enjoyed ourselves!’ This is what makes Bella Vita a great neighborhood restaurant. Change can be hard, but it can also make a dream of owning a business that listens to its customers and evolves through experience and hectic times worth every minute of every day!”

If you haven’t visited Bella Vita Lakeside lately, perhaps a visit during March Madness would be an opportune time to check out the expanded bar and try those new oven-baked wings. Follow them on Twitter (@BellaVita_Geist), Facebook (/BellaVitaMarina), or visit their website at www.BellaVitaattheMarina.com.

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