RPM Italian's motto might as well be “For celebrities, by celebrities.”
The River North restaurant co-owned by Giuliana and Bill Rancic and featured on their E! reality TV show “Giuliana and Bill” attracted an impressive celebrity clientele this year. And I'm not talking impressive-for-Chicago, either. I'm sure there are plenty of trendy restaurants in Los Angeles and New York that would like to be able to say they hosted Michael Jordan, Michelle Obama, LeBron James, Lady Gaga and Ashton Kutcher this year.
These A-listers are the reason RPM comes in at No. 2 on the ongoing list of the “Top Celebrity Hangouts of 2013.” The rankings began with Siena Tavern at No. 5, Sunda at No. 4 and Chicago Cut Steakhouse at No. 3 and will wrap up with No. 1 on Dec. 20. Here's a closer look at what earned RPM a spot on the list.
Spotted: Michael Jordan, Michelle Obama, LeBron James, Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Dwyane Wade, Roger Clemens, Cindy Crawford, Perry Farrell, Janelle Monae, Gabrielle Union, Calvin Harris, Richie Sambora, Jennie Garth, Nina Dobrev, Matt Forte, Frank Thomas, Derek Hough, Kristin Cavallari, Taylor Kinney, Stephenie Meyer
Regulars: Lady Gaga, Kristin Cavallari, Jenny McCarthy
Owners: R.J., Jerrod and Molly Melman, owners of Paris Club, Bub City and Hub 51; Bill and Giuliana Rancic; and Doug Psaltis.
Back story: “We were working on an Italian restaurant with Doug Psaltis, our partner, for a while and thought we'd do kind of a modern approach to Italian,” R.J. Melman said. “During the process, our friend Greg Olsen, who used to play for the Bears, said Bill and Giuliana were interested in getting in the restaurant business. … Over the course of a year we decided all three of (the parties) would do one together.”
Celeb story: Someone called the restaurant in February asking if it had a private dining room and if the Secret Service could come take a look at the space, but not once did the caller specify who exactly would be dining there. It wasn't until Michelle Obama walked in that restaurant staff learned the reservation was for the First Lady. “The coolest thing about it was people gave her a standing ovation as she walked in,” R.J. said. As you would expect, security was very tight at the restaurant that night. “Everyone who came in had to be patted down and go through metal detectors,” Jerrod said.
Draw: RPM does its share of celeb wrangling, just like many of the popular celeb hangouts in Chicago. But it also has something most of those places don't have: Celebrity owners. “Our partners Bill and Giuliana Rancic send a lot of their friends,” R.J. said. “The fact that (the restaurant) is also on television helps. … And it's in a busy part of town. The Trump and Peninsula are very close. Those are the hotels where a lot of (celebs) who don't live here are staying.”
VIP section: “Generally, we put (celebs) in the tables in the back of the bar,” R.J. said. “You're able to see what's going on (from there), but it's a little darker. The whole Blackhawks team had dinner back there. We put (celebs) in the back of the dining room as well. That's a good place to see everything but not necessarily have people next to you. We can also section off part of the dining room. We did a private room for Mila, Ashton and Danny Masterson during (Lollapalooza).” Not every celeb, however, wants that much privacy. “We knew Lady Gaga was coming in one night and had this private room set up for her, figuring she didn't want to get bothered, but when she came, she said, ‘Can I just sit in the dining room?'”
Discount: Because celebs sometimes have diet restrictions or are trying to slim down for a role, Jerrod said RPM doesn't usually bring out extra menu items for them to try on the house. He added that celebs make enough money to pay for their own meals, but, with some prodding, admitted the restaurant does comp a few checks for its famous clientele.
Endorsement: During Giuliana's live interview with Lady Gaga on the red carpet at the American Music Awards last month, the pop star gave RPM an unsolicited plug and expressed her love for the restaurant.
Sample tweet: “Such a fun #Lollapalooza weekend! Fave places in #Chicago were by far @rpmitalianchi and @hub51 Food was amazing!” – Jennie Garth
Dish: “Richie Sambora loved our cavatelli with meat sauce,” R.J. said.
Phil Vettel's restaurant review: 1 star
Impact: “I always think of it as gravy,” Jerrod said of the restaurant's celebrity business. “It never takes the place of anything else you're doing. You have to have good food and service. But if you have celebs, it adds a little bit of energy and buzz and gets people excited. And it reaffirms that you're in the right place.”
Future outlook: As has been mentioned previously in these rankings, Psaltis, the Melmans and the Rancics plan to open RPM Steak next year. This means some of the celebs the Rancics would normally send to RPM Italian will now be sent to RPM Steak. This could also mean RPM Italian will be featured less on “Giuliana and Bill,” if there is another season. But with the significant number of stars coming into RPM Italian this year, some of whom likely told their famous friends about the place, it seems unlikely that any dropoff would be drastic.
2012 ranking: 5
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