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The Irrepressible Fabio Viviani

Article by Michael Beightol

Photography by Stephen Neilson

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

Think for a moment about Leonardo DaVinci’s drawing titled “Vitruvian Man.” We’ve all seen it. It’s a drawing of a nude man in two superimposed positions; arms and legs spread apart and inscribed in both a circle and a square. Describing the drawing, art historian Carmen C. Bombach said it "justly ranked among the all-time iconic images of Western civilization.” In pen and ink, DaVinci created a man not only with perfect dimensions, but also a figure that appears to be in perpetual motion.

Some might say that perpetual motion is an apt description for Barrington Hills resident Fabio Viviani. Chef, celebrity, entrepreneur, and visionary also apply.

On the morning that Viviani graciously agreed to meet a reporter and photographer in his home, he momentarily interrupted a phone call and waved them over to park in the back with instructions to follow him to the kitchen. Hearing just snatches of his phone call, it was clear he was in a deep conversation with colleagues about the launch of another business. Logistics, marketing, distribution, contracts, and more were dealt with and dispatched with the efficiency of a CEO.

Fabio Viviani Hospitality (FVH) is one of the leading hospitality companies in the US, with nearly 60 locations in 15 states. SW Lake County will have its first FVH restaurant opening in late 2023 in Lake Zurich. Based in a building now under construction at the corner of Old Rand Road and US 12, the restaurant, called Lago, will be an entirely new concept for Viviani; think upscale but casual Italian steakhouse and seafood. “We’ll have the best steaks every day with fresh seafood flown in from some of the best purveyors on both coasts,” he said.

Lago will join a collection that includes several restaurants known by any foodie in Chicago: Bar Siena, Prime & Provisions, and Siena Tavern. The specificity of the Italian lineage of his restaurants is not a marketing ploy. It’s a place close to his heart.

The only child in a four-generation household, Viviani grew up in a housing project on the outskirts of Florence, Italy. “We were broke all the time,” he said. “We ate only one meal a day.”  At 11 years old he was already working: “I was on the late shift in a bakery, from midnight to 7 am. I was too young and working illegally, but the baker knew we wouldn’t get caught since the inspectors only checked during the day.” The pace was exhausting with work through the night and then school, but he kept it up, learning a trade and doing his part to contribute to the family earnings. 

After he turned 15 the baker told him of plans to open a restaurant, and Viviani’s education continued, gaining experience beyond food preparation to include hospitality. After four years, at just 19 years old, Viviani went to his boss, the baker/restauranteur, to announce that he would be leaving to open his own place. “But you have no money,” Viviani said the baker told him. In retelling the story, Viviani said that he responded by saying “You’re right. I have no money, but you do.” A deal was struck, and with backing from the baker, and eventually more investors, Viviani opened his first restaurant. Over the next eight years, he launched several more businesses — restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Things were going great, but eager to claim their earnings, the businesses were sold, and with his share in the bank, Viviani took a well-deserved vacation to sunny California. That lasted about three months: “I was bored not working,” Viviani said.

Initially, he helped a friend run a restaurant in California. Then he opened his own restaurant and in rapid succession, he had a small empire — Café Firenze, Firenze Osteria, Bar Firenze, and Mercato by Fabio Viviani — all in the Los Angeles area.

In 2013, Fabio teamed up with DineAmic Hospitality, and launched his Chicago area restaurants. He also opened additional Mercato by Fabio Viviani concepts across the country.

Next came the expansion of his brand into airports with the opening of Osteria by Fabio Viviani, which won USA Today’s Reader’s Choice Award for “Best Airport Sit Down Dining.” Next, he launched his casino brands in the Northeast, and then later at Morongo Casino Resort and Spa in Cabazon, CA, the largest gaming and hospitality deal to date in a single property — with eight restaurant concepts under one roof. 

Viviani was really making a name for himself. It wasn’t long before Hollywood, specifically cable TV, came calling — and things really got cooking.

Best known for his participation in Bravo’s Top Chef seasons 5 and 8 — earning the “Fan Favorite” title — his on-screen appearances and off-screen successes have propelled him to become one of the most influential culinary and hospitality names in the country. Viviani is a recurring guest on The Rachael Ray Show and numerous Food Network Shows, such as “Cutthroat Kitchen: All-Star Tournament,” which he won.

In fact, the same morning, he met the journalists he was fresh from a remote appearance at Navy Pier in Chicago where he was on Good Morning America as a judge for its “United States of Tacos” competition.

Certainly, he’s the 21st century version of a man in motion.

After a photo session in his home kitchen, the photographer suggested just a few more shots outside. A few photos were taken at his outdoor kitchen, and then across the back lawn to what he calls his working farm. To say that the crop this summer was abundant is an understatement. Full crates of a variety of tomatoes at the peak of freshness, melons trained to hang from a fence, fiery Carolina Reaper peppers, wild Italian strawberries, and an endless variety of other vegetables and herbs spread across the back of the property.

His guard came down at the chicken coop. “These are my pets,” Viviani said. “Would you like to meet Red?” He stepped past a protective fence, opened the door to the hen house and quietly called for his favorite to come out. Slowly and warily, with gentle coaxing by Viviani, Red appeared. She was scooped up and nuzzled by her owner.

“So, Fabio,” the reporter asked. “Where is all this work you’re doing heading toward?” Without hesitation he said, “My retirement. It will be just like this but without people like you guys asking questions and taking photos,” he joked. And he’s planning to still be in Barrington Hills with his wife, Ashley (who grew up here) and his son. “This is all I really need.” 

And then the visit was over. Viviani, the man in motion, was already back on the phone as walked to the house. Countless emails, text messages and phone calls had to be dealt with to run his growing enterprise from the comforts of home and farm.

To learn more visit FabioVivianiHospitality.com. Text “LAGO” to 8059915126 to get invited to VIP GRAND OPENING WEEKEND of Lago Italian SteakHouse in Lake Zurich (target: late 2023). In addition to Lago and another FVH restaurant to open locally, Viviani is launching JARS, a franchise single-serve desert shop. To date, 100 franchises are planned for the United States, and another 60 overseas. The JARS flagship shop is now open in the West Loop at 216 N. Peoria Street. The website is JarsByFabioViviani.com.

“We were broke all the time,” he said. “We ate only one meal a day.”  By the time he was 11-years old Fabio Viviani was already working at a bakery, and his career in food was well underway.

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