Exclusive Interview with Gina Stefani of MAD Social
Meet Gina Stefani, the restaurateur behind MAD Social, a delicious newcomer to Chicago’s West Loop restaurant scene.
You may be familiar with Gina’s father, Phil Stefani of Phil Stefani Signature restaurants (437 Rush, Tavern on Rush, Tuscany), but even with the pedigree, Gina has proven that she can hold her own in the fast-paced Chicago restaurant scene.
We interviewed Gina about what it takes to open a restaurant, how to balance business and pleasure when you’re working with family, and what her favorite Chicago eats are.
Featured photo is from the Chicago Tribune gina stefani interview mad social
BTR: Better Than Ramen’s readers look for ways to eat out well on a budget. How can people who are dining on a budget enjoy MAD Social?
Gina Stefani: With our concept, we’re really hoping that we’d be the place where you can get quality food and drink for a reasonable price. Because we encourage the sharing of the dishes, most of our items are priced under $20. You can come and not break the bank.
I noticed that the burger was the most expensive thing on the menu, which is pretty unorthodox.
GS: That’s because we didn’t want to become a burger place but we wanted to make a really delicious burger and price it accordingly.
How would you describe MAD Social to someone who hasn’t dined there before?
GS: MAD Social is a kitchen and gathering place. It’s a good place for people to come and sit in a comfortable environment and socialize with family and friends. It’s designed for any occasion, whether you’re coming for drinks or a full dinner.
How would you describe the menu? It seems pretty eclectic.
GS: The menu is new American cuisine with globally infused dishes. It’s a pretty diverse menu in that we’re not pigeon holed to one cuisine. You can see that by how we divided the menu also just by the sections meats, poultry, the sea, the madness (which is all the add-ons), and charcuterie.
Because we are in a [residential] neighborhood it was really important to have a diverse menu so that people hopefully come more than once a week, whether it’s for a salad and a glass of wine, or with a group of people to try many dishes.
interview gina stefani mad social
interview gina stefani mad social interview gina stefani mad social
interview gina stefani mad social
What are your favorite things on the menu?
GS: The beet salad, the chicken and waffles, and the duck tacos.
I had the chicken and waffles and they were incredible!
GS: I definitely don’t eat those often because they definitely put you over the edge, but I think she [Chef Mariela Bolaños] nailed it with the chicken and churro waffles.
[Editor’s note: Chef Bolaños even recommends this dish herself!]
Why did you choose to open MAD Social in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood?
GS: The location kinda just fell into my lap. I was originally looking to do a concept in River North, and then this West Loop location was brought to me and I fell in love with it right away.
I loved the idea of MAD Social being located in a [residential] neighborhood. My dad’s first restaurant was in Lincoln Park back in 1984 back when Lincoln Park wasn’t like it is today, so his was one of the first restaurants to get in there.
I feel the same way about the West Loop. It’s so up and coming and has grown so much in the last few years and continues to grow.
West Loop really has become the hot spot for new restaurants. What differentiates MAD Social from the rest?
GS: [In the West Loop] there’s Randolph Street, which has a ton of amazing restaurants, and then you have Madison Street, which is known for the sports bars where people go before games [at the United Center]. I think MAD Social came in at a great time to offer an alternative to sports bar fare by giving people that quality of a full dinner.
How did you come up with the concept behind MAD Social?
GS: The concept itself is pretty simple. I just wanted to create a comfortable environment. I worked with our designer, Adolfo Garcia, to help me turn this concept into a reality. There was already so much natural beauty in the restaurant’s structure so we tried to stay true to that by keeping the floors and walls, and by reclaiming wood and using that wherever we could, like on our bar. MAD Social is supposed to feel very comfortable — like an extension of your home. That’s my concept in terms of the design.
We played off of that with the diverse menu. Since Madison Street is populated with sports bars, it was important for MAD Social to have a unique wine list so that visitors could get a great glass of wine for a reasonable price, but also have the option of having a higher-end wine. We have a larger selection of wine and beer than what’s already being offered on Madison Street.
So what comes first, the restaurant’s concept or its menu?
GS: For MAD Social, decor – and the feeling of the restaurant – began first. In the back of my mind, I kind of had and idea of what the menu would look like, based on my travels and different restaurants I’ve tried. I’ve always loved restaurants with diverse menus where it’s not just one kind of cuisine.
When Mariela signed on with us, I had a brief description of what I was looking for – unique items with a twist – and she really brought that to life. The decor came first and then the menu came second, but I always had in the back of my mind what I wanted the menu to be.
Are you good at cooking?
GS: I am not. People always ask me if I cook. You would think I would, but growing up in the business, there were always all these people cooking. My dad is a great cook, but I never picked it up. I keep saying I need to learn…
In that case, what’s it like planning a menu when you don’t necessarily have the same kitchen skills as your chef?
GS: That’s a great question because I am a pretty basic eater. I wouldn’t really call myself a foodie. It was really important for me to conduct tastings with people of different demographic groups, but overall, I put a lot of my trust in our chef. From our first tasting, I felt automatic confidence when Mariela brought her first dishes to the table.
You took MAD Social from an idea to a restaurant. What does your role at the restaurant look like now?
GS: I hate titles, but my official title is managing partner. What this means is that I am involved in everything. I’m super hands-on.
Prior to coming into the restaurant business full-time, I was planning events so I’m used to managing every single piece of the big picture. To me, MAD Social is like an event without an end date.
I am involved in everything from the menu to our social media/website/marketing initiatives. I also work very closely with our general manager in terms of day-to-day operations. At night I’m on the restaurant floor and I try to talk to as many people as I can. So I kind of do it all.
Do you ever have any free time?!
GS: I just started making Thursdays my day off, so I’m going to try to stick with that. Last night was the first night I went out in like seven months and I was like, “Oh my god, this is so fun!”
Obviously it’s still so new and I want to perfect our goal of delivering our product and making sure that our service is on point, so right now my time is dedicated to that.
This is the first Stefani restaurant in 14 years. Why did you decide to open MAD Social now?
GS: The timing was right. I came into the company two years ago at age 29 and at that time I was remodeling one of our restaurants, 437, so I oversaw that. I started thinking of concepts for a restaurant of my own, and MAD Social came up. I’m 31 now and it felt like the right time.
What did you do before you started working for the family company?
GS: I graduated from DePaul in 2008, and got an internship with Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications on the events team straight out of college. I was there for almost a year and I loved it.
I left there and did freelancing for events, so I still worked with JT and some non-profits, and did some things for the White House.
In 2010 I worked for a company, XA (Experiential Agency), and I was the events producer there.
From there, I went to Stefani’s. So I spent a solid 5 years doing all different kinds of events.
Did you always want to end up working in the family business?
GS: Yes. I worked at Castaways during the summer from the time I was a freshman in high school until I was 22. I was always in family business in some capacity, but it was really important to my parents once I graduated from college that I didn’t go straight into the company, and that I went on my own to find something I was passionate about, and to make a name for myself. It was always the end goal to join the family company, but I loved that I had that opportunity to gain experience on my own and bring it to MAD Social.
What’s it like working with family? Do you have advice for anyone who wants to go into business with family?
GS: It definitely has its pros and cons, as does everything. The biggest struggle is finding the boundaries and keeping business and family separate. Try not to bring the business part home. Overall, it’s great. You’re seeing your family daily and not many people see their family all of the time.
You also run a catering business with your mom. How is catering different from running a restaurant?
GS: Catering is a total beast in itself. The thing with a restaurant is you open the doors every morning and you leave every night. It’s the same place, the same thing, and you know where everything is.
With catering, one day you can be cooking in a closet for 500 people in an auditorium and the next day you can be in somebody’s kitchen doing their dinner for 20 people. Catering is really fun because every event is so different. You really get to be creative with the menu each time.
How do you maintain creativity at your restaurant?
GS: We print our menus in-house to stay fresh. Even though we have this diverse menu, we’re already talking about changing things up for next season. The current mac and cheese may be switched out for a different mac and cheese.
We have also started incorporating daily specials. We are now we are working on our brunch menu, hoping to launch that soon.
That’s what I love – that the menu will always be changing. Both Mariela and I like to keep challenging ourselves. She’s still tweaking dishes we have now. So that’s fun for us.
How did you find Chef Mariela Bolaños?
GS: We put an ad out, and she left a really great impression the first time we met her. She has a bold personality and says it how it is, but it was really the tasting that solidified her ability.
How would you describe the Chicago food scene to a transplant?
GS: Chicago, I think, is probably one of the best culinary cities around. It’s very diverse and really hits on all different cultures, which I think is awesome.
You probably go to more places to me, but prior to opening this restaurant, I loved going into random neighborhoods and trying ma-and-pa restaurants. That’s real quality food.
What are 3 Chicago restaurants that newcomers have to try?
What’s up next for Gina Stefani?
GS: This is so new right now so I haven’t been thinking to far into the future. I just want to perfect MAD Social. Eventually, hopefully all goes well at MAD and I can start thinking of another concept and do that. But that just seems so far and crazy right now.
I love what I’m doing, I enjoy going to work every day. It’s constant tweaking and trying to make it a more enjoyable experience for customers. That is where my time is dedicated right now.