PILSEN — About a month after the Nuevo Leon restaurant was destroyed in a fire, the Gutierrez family said they are now making plans to rebuild the iconic restaurant — but it's going to be a lot smaller.
In early December, an extra-alarm fire that raged for three hours decimated the 53-year-old Nuevo Leon restaurant. No one was injured in the fire, but it caused severe damage to the three-story building.
As of now, the Gutierrez family plans to rebuild a smaller Nuevo Leon restaurant at 1515 W. 18th St., which housed the original restaurant before it was expanded into a neighboring building in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Under that plan, the adjoining building at 1517 W. 18th St. would be transferred to restaurant co-owner Danny Gutierrez Sr.'s brother, in accordance with his mother's wishes, Gutierrez's son Danny Jr. said Tuesday. That building could become a new storefront, the son said.
Gutierrez Jr. also told DNAinfo Chicago Tuesday that the new restaurant would seat approximately 120 people with a small banquet facility on the second floor. The old Nuevo Leon sat about 160 people.
Citing massive damage, city inspectors are calling for both buildings that housed the Nuevo Leon restaurant to be demolished, Gutierrez Jr. said. He is working with city officials to explore options that will preserve the original facade, he said.
The colorful mural on the facade of the building is by Pilsen artist Juan Solano, Gutierrez Jr. said.
"It has sentimental value, it means something to us," he said of the colorful facade. "Unfortunately, they are putting pressure on me to take it down."
Eliminating one of the rooms in the restaurant will allow the Gutierrez Jr. to have better control of the dining room.
"I'm able to watch everything that comes out of the kitchen, watch my waiters on the floor," he said. "I'm not a control freak, but I like to take care of what I have."
To date, Gutierrez Jr. has hired 20 of the 50-60 Nuevo Leon employees at his new restaurant Cantón Regio on 18th Street. About 90 percent of the Nuevo Leon employees have been able to find other employment.
"I'm very proud of my people," he said through tears. Until Nuevo Leon is rebuilt, "we said, 'Go to work. Make us proud.' "
Cause of fire
Fire investigators told Gutierrez Jr. that the fire may have started when faulty electrical wires ignited in a crawl space in the building that built up with debris over time, he said. Gutierrez Jr. was sleeping upstairs at the time.
"The iron beams buckled. The devastation is not really seen from the front," he said. But from the back, "it's a whole different picture back there."
"I'm lucky to be alive," he said.
Gutierrez Jr. said he doesn't expect the new Nuevo Leon building to reopen for more than a year.
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