LIMA — Joe Guagenti may have been best known as the man who helped build one of the city’s most enduring restaurant dynasties, but he will be remembered by friends, family and at least two generations of customers, as a guy who mastered old-school hospitality.
Guagenti died Monday. He was 81.
The Guagenti name is most closely associated with the Milano Club, a restaurant his father, also named Joe Guagenti, opened on Wayne Street in 1932 as a four-table diner. Two years later, he moved to the 400 block of North Main Street. The business was eventually handed over to the younger Joe and his brother Donnie. In 1960, they moved the restaurant to 415 W. Market St., where it remained until a fire gutted the building in 1996.
It was during those years with the Milano Club that the younger Joe Guagenti forged his reputation as both a shrewd businessman and a world-class glad-hander.
“Over 60 years in the restaurant business, that man shook more hands and welcomed more people to Lima than anyone I can think of,” said John Heaphy, who worked for Guagenti years before opening his own restaurants, including the Happy Daz and Beer Barrel chains. “He was a mentor to me as a young man. I liked and respected him a lot.”
Guagenti spent most of his life working in downtown Lima and remained an unapologetic booster of the city. In 1960, when the family decided to invest in Milano’s Market Street location, they bucked the trend of moving out of town.
“The trend seems to be to move to the edge of town, but we have always been a part of Lima and we wanted to keep it that way. We want people to think of Lima and us at the same time,” Guagenti told The Lima News for a story published when the business opened.
The brothers opened a second restaurant in 1985. Tudor’s, located on Elida Road, mixed the Italian classics of the Milano with more traditional American fare. The hospitality remained the same.
“When you went over there, he made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He had a gift for making people feel welcome. Whatever was going on, if you were there, you were going to be part of it, said Tony Venturella, co-owner of Casa Lu Al and a cousin of Guagenti’s.
Tudor’s eventually became the Milano Cafe, which today is run by Guagenti’s son, Frank. Donnie died in 2005.
In 2002, Guagenti was given the first-ever Lifetime Achievement award by the Lima Allen County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in honor of his commitment to hospitality. He weaned himself from the family business, but even in later years could be found at the restaurant, greeting customers as he had for six decades.
“He was among the warmest, most genuine men I have ever known. He made everyone feel like they were a friend,” Venturella said. “You don’t get that anymore. He will be missed.”
Lima restaurant king, Joe Guagenti, dies