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Avli’s Louie Alexakis on Hospitality, Hard Work, and the Rise of Greek Restaurants

Cover Image for Avli’s Louie Alexakis on Hospitality, Hard Work, and the Rise of Greek Restaurants
By Sophie Brochu
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Greek dining is hotter than ever, but Louie Alexakis has been in the game for a few decades. In fact, Alexakis has created something of a restaurant empire in Chicago. Since opening the first Avli in 2009, he has expanded his Greek dining concept with five additional locations. His recipe for success? Philoxenia (hospitality), kefi (joy), and meraki (passion).

Working the Original Hot Dog Stands of Chicago:

“My parents ran hot dog stands in Chicago for 57 years. I had no summers growing up. Way before it was legal to work, my parents would take me out of school a week or two early and we’d drive from Florida to Chicago. My mom was like, ‘What are you going to do? Sue me if you want, I have to open my hot dog stands.’

What did that do? Frankly, I’m not afraid of hard work. I love the fact that my mother, who was an immigrant, came over as a 19-year old, post-World War II and the Greek Civil War, having lost her father and her older brother. She came over to support her family, a mother and four siblings. My mom worked until she was 81 years old, seven days a week at the hot dog stands.”

A Greek spread.

On The Rise of Greek Dining in the US:

“Tourism in Greece has peaked. It was the number one destination last year for all of Europe and it continues to break records. You have people who travel to Greece and want that experience here. You also have a few people who have done a lot for the Greek brand, someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Milwaukee Bucks. Strangely enough, everyone knows he’s called the Greek Freak. He was MVP. He does national Greek tourism advertisements which play all over the place. And then, frankly, Greek food specifically is healthy, interesting, and familiar.”

Graduating from Greektown:

“Greek food used to be like Chinatown. There was Greektown and Chinatown, but you started seeing some Chinese restaurants in downtown Chicago. You certainly saw the Italian restaurants move out of Little Italy. Well, I think it really helped that we moved out of Greektown, that we said, ‘This isn’t just a novelty.'”

Avli River North

The Beginning of Avli:

“When I started Avli in 2009 in Winnetka, I had just come back from a Mediterranean food conference at the Culinary Institute of America. I met Diane Kochilas, who is a well-known Greek cookbook author and has a TV show on public television. I approached her and I said, ‘I really think we can show people that Greek food is more than just these standards.’ In the beginning she helped me develop menu items that were regional, interesting, and flavorful. Still approachable, enjoyable, but someone would look at it and go, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t know Greeks did a stuffed eggplant,’ for example, or ‘I’m a vegetarian. What a great dish.’ Turns out that’s something Greeks have been doing for a hundred years.”

At the first Avli:

“My mom used to come with me to Avli, five hours a day, 83 years old. She’d walk in the kitchen and say, ‘Give me some onions to chop.’ All of my staff loved her. Of course, by 3 o’ clock, she was tired so she’d sit down and have two glasses of wine. What a great day for her. I love that she stayed active. My mom helped me until she passed away at 88.”

Mastika cocktails.

Expanding into Chicago:

“By 2015 or so, I was interested in expanding into the city. It took a couple of years and then, as the opportunities arose, I had to question myself. Was I going to try to open up two, three, four, five, six restaurants by myself? I realized that would be very difficult, so I got some great partners. All of us, in a sense, bring something special to the partnership. We have someone who’s very business-minded, is an investor and really knows the ins-and-outs of that. I have my partner, Lou Canellis, who has been a very well-known sports personality in Chicago for 20 years, probably the most famous Greek in Chicago. It drives me crazy when I’m walking down the street with him or I’m at the airport with him. People are like, ‘Oh, that’s Lou Canellis. Let me go say hi, let me talk about the Bears. What do you think about the Cubs or the Bulls,’ but that’s great. It exposed us to more people that way.”

Philoxenia (hospitality), Kefi (joy), and Meraki (passion):

“Hospitality is a cultural phenomenon in Greece. Even the original Greek restaurants, there was something nice when you walked in and the managers or the host knew your name. They’d ask how your kids were. They knew where you’d like to sit. The second pillar is a term called kefi, which translates into joy, fun, or happiness, but again, contextually, it also means feeling happy in a moment. It’s almost like living in the moment and having a good time. Well, to me, that’s what diners want now. Then, the third term, meraki, is passion for what you do. The overriding experience that I try to tell the staff is that, because we are passionate about what we do and we treat our customers with friendliness, they will have joy. To me, that really is the definition of how I’ve always wanted the restaurants to be and what we do our best to accomplish.”

Kataifi prawns wrapped in shredded filo.

When you go to Avli, don’t skip:

“The shrimp wrapped in shredded phyllo dough. It’s almost the Greek version of popcorn shrimp or the Greek version of a deep fried shrimp. We use wonderful wild-caught shrimp. Recently one of our competitors put it on their menu, and you know what, it’s the highest form of flattery.”

Pair it with:

“Greek wine, I think, is so underappreciated. Greece is at the top of the game in the white wine world. You have a tremendous number of young, smaller winery owners who are into natural wine, who are looking at processes where they can take wine and say to a customer, ‘This is something new and different. There’s a lot of innovation in that respect.

We’ve also had great success with a liquor called mastika. It’s a distillate made from tree sap on one island in Greece. Only one island produces this tree. It has this amazing, herbaceous, not too sweet flavor, which is amazing with anything citrus. We do a couple of drinks with it. A frozen lemonade, a watermelon cocktail, you can do it with orange juice. You can drink it straight, also. I’d love for people to come in and say, ‘You know what, can I try one of those mastica drinks?’”

Nikos Bakoulis of The Clumsies.

What’s next:

The Clumsies Takeover. We’re bringing The Clumsies over from Athens, Greece on July 28th and 29th. They’re ranked No. 4 by The World’s 50 Best Bars. Co-founder, Nikos Bakoulis, will be behind the bar for two nights, first at River North then at at Avli on The Park. He’s bringing his own distillates, bitters, everything from Greece. He’s literally traveling with a suitcase and bringing enough to make 900 cocktails.”

Visit Avli

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