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Lake Como restaurant with colorful history reopens under new ownership
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Lake Como restaurant with colorful history reopens under new ownership

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TOWN OF GENEVA — The place that John Dillinger made famous is back.

The restaurant overlooking Lake Como at the French Country Inn resort has reopened under new management.

Now known as Savoy, the restaurant at W4190 West End Road has undergone a makeover designed to give diners a sleek new look and comfortable new amenities.

But one thing remains unchanged: the lakefront property’s colorful history.

So, when new owner John Strong embarked on a year-long effort to resurrect the restaurant, he knew that success would come from renovating without abandoning the building’s distinctive character.

“Everything is new,” he said, “even though it’s old.”

To complete the transformation, Strong and his business partner, Michael Deutsch, brought in a kitchen staff that is new to the Lake Geneva region, and brings with it new ideas about fine dining.

The menu includes classics like steak and duck, as well as new twists, such as pickled vegetables grown fresh in a garden located on site.

There are also plans to introduce a bakery and coffee shop to serve daytime customers.

Head chef Cristian Hernandez, who hails from Mexico and learned cooking in California, said he made the move to the Midwest for the chance to help build Savoy from the ground up.

Hernandez said the restaurant looked tired and forgotten when he first saw it last year. But he could sense the potential for renovating and recreating the place.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “It’s been a total transformation.”

The restaurant and tavern stands adjacent to a 32-room hotel, the French Country Inn, which has its roots in an exhibition that appeared at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The structure later was shipped by rail to Wisconsin and erected on the southern shore of Lake Como.

The complex evolved from a private hunting club into a hotel, and during the gangster period in Chicago history, it became a favorite hangout for such mob legends as John Dillinger and Bugs Moran.

The gangster folklore has loomed large as different owners and operators have tried their hands at running the lakefront resort’s combined hotel and dining and drinking facilities.

Anthony Navillo, who has owned the complex since 1986, leased the restaurant three years ago to the operators of Stefana’s Lakeside Dining. But Stefana’s closed in 2019.

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Navillo then agreed last year to sell both the hotel and the restaurant businesses to Strong and Deutsch, doing business as French Country Inn LLC. Navillo continues as owner of the property.

Strong and Deutsch plan to continue highlighting the property’s unique past connections to Chicago mobsters, while they attempt to reintroduce the restaurant to a fine dining clientele.

Heritage Beam & Board LLC, an interior design firm from Elkhorn, has spent months refurbishing the restaurant using repurposed materials and fixtures designed to accent the establishment’s history.

Emily Krauklis and Seth Hanson, co-owners of Heritage Beam, set out to recreate the restaurant without creating a sense that the old French Country Inn had been forsaken.

“We wanted to make it feel like it’s been here,” Krauklis said.

The dining room, which seats 70, features new flooring, new ceilings with decorative wooden beams, new lighting, and new tables. The bar, which can accommodate another 30 people, now has windows that open for outdoor seating. And an outdoor patio can seat another 60 or more for dinner or cocktails.

During the coronavirus, seating is being controlled to help customers keep their distance from one another.

Past customers will recognize the copper-top tabletops in the bar, as well as the scenic views of Lake Como and the historic mementos on display of the John Dillinger days.

Strong said he and Deutsch are counting on customers to embrace Savoy’s lakefront location, creative new dishes, friendly service and extensive wine list.

“Hopefully all of that will contribute to the success,” Strong said.

Savoy has been open since mid-July.

Another familiar face added to the mix is Jay McNulty, the new front manager, who had spent the past 10 years working at Medusa Grill & Bistro, a downtown Lake Geneva restaurant that is listed for sale.

McNulty said he was excited to be joining Savoy at a time when the unique property is being reborn.

Pointing to the lake views and new look of the restaurant, McNulty said he expects strong and sustained success.

“It’s like, how can you lose?” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

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