Casper "Cap" Balistreri still vividly recalls the day he viewed a former steakhouse restaurant space near Brookfield's bustling Ruby Isle shopping center.
It was 1983. Casper and his wife, Sara, were looking to breathe new life into a family business, the Venice Club. The eatery has roots going back to 1947.
After more than 30 years as a Brookfield mainstay and 67 years as a family-run restaurant, the Venice Club is closing its doors Friday.
Late last month, the Balistreris announced the Venice Club — known for such specialties as fried eggplant strips — would be shutting down after they were unable to strike a deal with the company holding the property's mortgage.
The final chapter in the Venice Club's storied history comes after a series of setbacks. The Balistreris had planned to retire from daily operations within the restaurant in 2006 after selling it to Antoinette "Toni" Radler, Casper's sister.
But Casper and Sara resumed management of the facility last year when Toni died suddenly after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
"When she passed away, everything was in flux," Casper said. "We decided to step back in and run it from her estate."
Casper said he and Sara were interested in buying back the restaurant, but a final round of negotiations last month were unsuccessful. A sheriff's auction is planned for the property, 1905 N. Calhoun Road, later this month.
"We just couldn't put the deal together," Casper said. "We thought they were asking too much money, and we felt we had no other choice than to close."
But the couple readily admits the decision is bittersweet, particularly for a restaurant with such deep familial roots.
A storied journey
During the first half of its existence, the Venice Club was a staple within Milwaukee's restaurant scene. Other Balistreri family members operated the business, which first laid roots in the city's Third Ward before relocating to downtown Milwaukee in 1958 to accommodate freeway construction.
When a decision was made to close the Venice Club in 1983, Casper and Sara decided to intervene and buy the business, relocating it to Brookfield in the process.
Referring to the present-day location, Sara said she had dubbed the Venice Club as "the soul of Italy in the heart of Brookfield."
When asked what he will miss most as he looks back on the past three decades in Brookfield, Casper provided a rapid response.
"It's the people," he said. "We've developed so many personal relationships with our customers. It's actually amazing."
In recent weeks, as word of the restaurant's imminent closure spread, Casper said he and Sara have been greeted by an outpouring of support from loyal clientele.
But Casper said he also is proud of the growth he and Sara infused into the business over the years.
"We took a very small restaurant space that seated about 125 people and grew it," he said. "We now can seat up to 500 people."
Still at Summerfest
While the Venice Club is officially retiring as a freestanding restaurant, the name itself is not going away.
Casper said some of the popular menu items will continue to be served at Summerfest, Festa Italiana and Irish Fest through a separately formed company, Venice Club Festivals.
"We met with (Summerfest CEO) Don Smiley, and he said he really wants us to continue to be there, so we will," Casper said. "We're happy to be there as long as they want us."
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