HUMBOLDT PARK — About 14 years ago, Gino Battaglia stood at the intersection of California Avenue and Augusta Boulevard and came up with a vision for the then-vacant block. Since that day, he’s bought all four buildings at the Humboldt Park intersection.
Now, he says he's introducing two new restaurants to the block by the end of this year, plus reworking a well-known neighborhood bar, the California Clipper, with a leading figure in Chicago's restaurant industry.
Battaglia's says he's playing for the long run, estimating that in five years, the pieces he’s put into place will fully become the economic hub he's envisioned.
“It’s starting to come together,” he said. “It took us a while to purchase all four corners, but that was our original intent. The corners really dictate the direction of the neighborhood.”
After purchasing and rehabbing the building on the northeast corner in 2000, Battaglia waited patiently for nine months, turning down offer after offer from insistent callers who wanted to open businesses like liquor stores, cheap food marts, tire shops and a funeral service center, he said.
But Battaglia wanted a cafe because, he said, “a coffee shop brings people together — it’s a place where anyone can get out of their house and be together.” He felt Humboldt Park "needed a coffee shop to act as a bridge between the older residents and the next generation,” he said.
Today, KnockBox Café, Battaglia’s “anchor,” sits on the northeast corner and two new operations run by star restaurant developer Brendan Sodikoff are on the books for the southwest and northwest corners — an unnamed restaurant with a large outdoor seating space, currently A Car Discount Muffler & Brake, and a new approach for the California Clipper, respectively.
The last vacant corner is a building on the southeast end that completed Battaglia’s set when he bought it in 2009. It’s now in the final stages of city permitting and concept planning as a bistro with outdoor seating serving craft beer, co-run by the owners of High Dive and Rocking Horse, he said.
That bistro will complement nearby Rootstock, a former Battaglia property, when it opens this fall.
Battaglia expects the two new restaurants will be up and running at the intersection by the end of this year.
Battaglia described his vision from the California Clipper on a recent dreary day overlooking the intersection he sees as the future hub for Humboldt Park; he sees himself more as a community builder than a real estate mogul — because “social responsibility increases everyone’s value,” he said.
Hence, the rejections: he estimates he’s turned down about two dozen offers for business ventures at the California and Augusta intersection over the last decade because, despite the rising bids, those owners didn't fit into the vision he has for the area.
“I’m a frustrated artist, I think — it’s a labor of love,” he said.
Battaglia and his mother, a seamstress, immigrated from Italy when he was 9. He worked odd jobs, cutting grass and shoveling snow, before becoming a bartender and later opening a pizzeria in Logan Square in his late 20s. He sold the pizza shop two years later and eventually opened a bar in the 1985 — Blue Chicago, 536 N. Clark St. — which combines his love for the blues and his keen eye for real estate, renovation and preservation.
Battaglia and his wife, Bernadette, who doubles as his longtime business partner, own about 23 buildings across the city, including the four at the Humboldt Park intersection.
KnockBox Café owner Jonah Shalack has been a tenant of the Battaglia’s for about four years — he was drawn in by Battaglia’s vision, he said, despite his shop being the only one on the corner at the time.
Battaglia and Shalack, a Humboldt Park resident, say they want to change the perception of Humboldt Park as a dangerous neighborhood.
Though Shalack said KnockBox has seen its share of troublesome incidents — a window across the street was shot out the day they opened, a car crashed through the storefront six months later and a man with a machete once threatened to burn the cafe down — the shop he runs with his wife and seven employees is positioned for the long haul.
“When we first opened, business was slow — we used to make less money in a day than we make before 9 a.m. now. It didn’t seem like anything was happening for four years," he said.
Now, he said, "it’s been interesting to see the growth of the neighborhood — Gino had this vision and his sheer willpower made it happen.”
After 45 years in the real estate and renovation business, Battaglia said the intersection of California and Augusta is "in the right hands" with Sodikoff, whose Gilt Bar, Au Cheval and Doughnut Vault are city favorites. Sodikoff "has the same vision" in terms of honoring the original architecture and respecting the neighborhood's unique and diverse culture, he said.
Under Sodikoff, the California Clipper, originally built as a nickelodeon in 1911, won't change drastically but may be refitted with a theater after Sodikoff takes over the lease in June, he said.
Once the Clipper and the two upcoming restaurants are installed along with KnockBox Cafe on the four corners, Battaglia said the addition of an ice cream parlor on the northwest corner would complete his plan and complement the existing local economy.
"All of them are what we want it to be and all the pieces are in place," he said.
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