LIMA — It had been just about 37 years since the day in November 1960 when the Milano Club, with its Italian marble statues and Florentine mirrors, held its grand opening — and just about one year since the day in July 1996 when the whole thing burned down.
On a hot and humid July day in 1997, the remnants of the Lima landmark were being auctioned. “Dozens of people braved the ‘Enter at Your Own Risk’ signs at the entrance of the familiar green-marble tiled building at 415 W. Market St.,” the Lima News wrote July 2, 1997. “They made their way through the gutted rooms where restaurant fixtures, furniture and equipment were scattered on the floor.”
Many were there to buy a piece of history while others were there just to remember the place where they met and ate and maybe danced to the music of Stan Kenton or Count Basie or countless other entertainers.
“I hope that some people are buying things just to have a part of Milano’s — a part of Lima history,” said Frank Guagenti, a grandson of one of the restaurant’s founders.
Milano’s had been a part of Lima’s history for more than six decades by 1997, although the original Milano’s was a grittier affair than the version destroyed in the spectacular 1997 fire. The restaurant was first opened in 1932 by brothers Joe and Frank Guagenti as a four-seat diner in the 100 block of East Wayne Street. It didn’t stay there long.
On Jan. 31, 1935, an ad in the News advised readers to watch for the opening of the “new Milano Café” at 406 N. Main St. with “chef supreme La Monti, specialist in genuine Italian and fine American foods.”
A News writer was impressed. In the column “Around Lima Hour by Hour” on June 17, 1936, the columnist wrote, “Oh, yes, for Sunday dinner, the whole family put into ecstasy by a magnificent dual plate gift from Milano. Great cakes of ‘spumoni,’ the famous delicatessen frozen cream of Italy.’ Mussolini himself would have eaten until he near bursted just as we did … .”
Over the years, the North Main Street location would add new dining rooms and a wine and delicatessen store just to the south of the main restaurant. In 1952, the Milano’s distinctive logo with the “M” turned into a chef made its first appearance in a newspaper ad for a Sunday smorgasbord. Two years later, the front of the restaurant received a facelift, with glass blocks and red bricks forming the new front.
Inside, the Milano Café, operated by Frank Guagenti and his sons, Joe and Donnie, offered entertainment. In 1948, diners were entertained by “Fran Primo, Piano Queen of New Orleans,” while 1949 saw appearances by “Karl Kroske, King of the Keyboard.” Kroske would be a staple at the Milano Café into the 1960s.
In 1957, the Guagentis purchased the old Lima Club at 415 W. Market St., and began renting it out for private parties, company dinners, wedding receptions, luncheon groups, banquets and sales meetings.
On May 17, 1958, News columnist Bob Perez wrote, “One of Lima’s oldest buildings may soon be the site of one of its most fabulous night spots if the dreams of one Joe Guagenti come to pass … Joe is banking a huge payroll and all his hopes in the remodeling of the Lima Club into one of the most fashionable and pleasantest nightclubs in all of Limaland. The plans look good and — if it works — it should really be something.”
The Lima Club had already really been something by the time the Guagentis bought it. Lima clothing merchant Levi Jacobs obtained the property about 1861. Five years later it passed into the hands of Lima’s leading 19th century entrepreneur Benjamin Faurot, finder of oil, founder of an opera house and namesake of parks, a street and, once, an elementary school. Faurot, however, suffered financial setbacks in the 1890s and the family was forced to relinquish the property after his death in 1904. It then passed into the hands of Richard W. Argue, an oil producer and director of the Lima Trust Co., who remodeled the property before moving in about 1906, and moving out around 1910 for a new home in California.
The property was then purchased by the Lima Club, whose purpose was to promote social relationships and the best interests of Lima. Under the Lima Club the building was redesigned. During the Depression, the Lima Club was forced to move to new quarters in the basement of the Argonne Hotel while the Lima College moved into the old Lima Club building. In later years it would house radio station WBLY, an antique store and a furniture store before returning to Lima Club ownership in 1948, with the building again being revamped to include a grill room with kitchen, lounge, card and conference rooms, and a dance hall.
In 1957, it was sold to the Guagentis, who opened the Milano Club in the building in November 1960, about three months after a fire in mid-August 1960 caused about $15,000 damage to the old Milano Café on North Main Street. That building would quickly be repaired and reopened as Tomasi’s Villa.
The new Milano Club, meanwhile, was receiving praise. “Cooking for Profit,” a food industry magazine, featured a story on the Milano Club which was quoted in the June 11, 1961, edition of the News. “The club opened its door in November 1960 and gave the public the first view of a supper club that cost $325,000 to remodel,” the magazine wrote. “The Milano Club boasts wrought iron railings and two gas lamps that spotlight the entrance. And a highlight of the club is a plush thick red carpet and with gold imported wall covering. A serpentine bar and a green and white decorative scheme provide atmosphere for 75 customers. The main dining room features seating for 113 persons.”
Over the years, the restaurant would undergo more renovations and expansions, notably two stories added to the north side of the restaurant, and become a favorite Lima gathering spot. At one time, it had 20,000 square feet of dining space.
During the Milano Club’s grand opening in November 1960, patrons were entertained by Tony Pastor and his sons Guy and Tony Jr. During the 1960s and ‘70s acts as varied as Henny Youngman, “the King of One Liners,” and band leaders Harry James and Guy Lombardo appeared at the Milano Club.
Then, around 4 p.m. July 29, 1996, a busboy arriving for work smelled smoke on the third floor. About four hours after the discovery, the Milano Club was a smoldering wreck. In late December 1997, the remains of the Milano Club were razed.
In May 2002, the Milano Café was reborn at 2383 Elida Road, which had been the site of Tudor’s, another restaurant owned by the family.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.