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Coming Up Roses
By Joel Reese | Photo: Frank Ishman | May 29, 2015
In 1975, Alex Dana, restaurateur and founder of Rosebud Restaurant Group, opened The Rosebud on Taylor Street. Forty years and nine restaurants later, he reflects on his epicurean empire.
Alex Dana leaves no doubt about his role in the Rosebud restaurant empire. “My business card says, ‘Alex Dana—The Boss,’” he notes proudly. “That’s it. It sort of wraps it all up.”
Dana laughs, but behind all the jokes, backslaps and entertaining stories, the loquacious restaurateur burns with ambition— and a deep love for the restaurant world.
“You have to have the passion for this business, you know what I mean?” he says. “A lot of people do it for the money. But I love doing it every day. I don’t know what it is, but I still love it.”
Dana began his star-studded restaurant career peeling potatoes and cleaning fish at his father’s place on the North Side. Then came stints waiting tables at the Drake Hotel and managing the Loop’s famed Miller’s Pub.
Dana eventually found his true calling in 1975 when he opened Rosebud on Taylor Street, back when the neighborhood was more skid row than restaurant row. Now, he’s the undisputed emperor of a 10-restaurant empire that spans Chicagoland and is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
Dana attributes his longevity to a hands-on work ethic: When he began Rosebud, he cooked everything from scratch using generations-old family recipes. Even now, Dana meticulously pores over the ingredients to make sure everything meets his standards.
“I go through the tomato vines every day; I watch all the little tweaks in the kitchens to make sure all the products don’t vary,” he says. “The minute you don’t buy the right cheese or the right tomatoes, everything changes.”
Dana also strives to make all of his customers feel at home, whether it’s a local family coming in for its weekly Sunday dinner or Robert De Niro looking to check out Chicago’s nightlife.
“De Niro, he’s a great guy,” Dana says. “After dinner, he says, ‘Take me around town!’ He loved to go to the Cotton Club on the south end of the West Loop.”
Dana notes that he became friendly with names like Sinatra, Martin, Hanks and Pesci over the years, but he insists he’s still in touch with his daily customers as well.
“You gotta know how people like their food, and you gotta treat them nice. That’s all,” he says.
Then, it’s just a matter of keeping things comfortable and making sure people feel entertained. “I’m a mover; I love the business,” he says. “Every night, you gotta be on. It’s showtime!”