Restaurant Profile: Meet a family of Chicago restaurateurs who serve up delicious Italian dishes in a beautifully restored Dixon building.
On a bitterly cold February night in 2008, when the nation was still in deep recession, a warm and elegant restaurant opened in Dixon, Ill., at 123 E. First St.
Along with a lovely atmosphere and made-from-scratch Italian cuisine, the 120-year-old walls of Basil Tree Ristorante contained the dreams of owners Mili Dalipi (28) and Sal Azemi (39), brothers-in-law from Chicago who discovered this location on their way back home from visiting restaurateur cousins in nearby Sterling, Ill.
After purchasing the old brick building, the pair spent 18 months renovating it with their own hands, touching every brick, board and banister, and stumbling onto clues about its history as a bank, Moose Club and Mexican restaurant. “The building was in bad shape,” says Dalipi. Because Al Capone was said to have spent time in its tunnel-equipped basement, the cozy banquet room there is adorned not only with a mural of pastoral Italy, but a portrait of the criminal himself. “We refer to the lower level as ‘the speakeasy,’” he quips.
In the main floor dining room, Brazilian cherry floors gleam beneath tables set with cream-colored china; amber pendants cast warm light on arched doorways and travertine-trimmed walls; rows of Italian and Californian wine bottles glint in the soft light. “We get our wine from a supplier we know in Chicago, who buys mostly from smaller vineyards,” Dalipi explains. “We want to be unique. You can’t find these wines elsewhere in this area.”
In the foyer, a full bar is designed to accommodate diners and private-party guests and to discourage bar-only patrons. A stone fountain/wine rack, handmade by Dalipi, cools bottles of Chardonnay and offers an immediate conversation piece.
While the owners clearly have a way with design and renovation, their best talents are revealed in the kitchen.
“Sal grew up in New York, in his family’s restaurants, and I grew up in suburban Chicago, in my family’s restaurants,” says Dalipi. “Together, we have about 40 years of experience.”
The owners share a goal of offering great dishes and impeccable service. “We think it’s important to do our own cooking,” says Dalipi. “When you change chefs, the food becomes inconsistent. We hold high standards for the authentic Italian dishes we serve.”
Don’t expect to pay New York or Chicago prices – every entrée is under $20.
The large menu represents many parts of Italy. A whopping 10 sauces are made fresh daily, from the house sauce to Marinara, Alfredo, basilica, arrabbiata, Bolognese, puttanesca, vodka, pesano and quattro farmmangi.
The chefs are happy to fill special requests such as gluten-free or meatless entrées. Dalipi is no vegetarian, though. “I’m a big fan of our hand-cut steaks,” he says. “We have the meat delivered from Bloomington, not far away.”
Along with New York steak, Steak Portabella and ribeye, he recommends Basil Tree’s Braciola di Maiale, a rolled flank steak stuffed with Italian sausage, spinach and mozzarella, served with a light marinara sauce and Vesuvio potatoes. Other favorites: Veal Francois, dipped in egg batter, pan fried and served with lemon butter sauce; Fruta di Mare, with shrimp, mussels, scallops, calamari and clams in red sauce. All entrées are served with minestrone or a soup of the day, and a side of pasta or potatoes.
Hot and cold appetizers are offered, and desserts include tiramisu laced with Kahlua; vanilla gelato; spumoni; Italian lemon cream cake; and, of course, cannoli. Don’t forget the cannoli.
Now that they’ve transformed a building, survived a recession and established a reputation, Dalipi and Azemi are eager to build their business further. Private parties are booked through December, and their base of regular customers is growing. The owners still do a lot of driving back and forth to Chicago, but Dalipi rents an apartment in Dixon, and his parents have moved there. Azemi, Dalipi or his dad, Nick, is always on the premesis.
“The people in Dixon are awesome,” says Dalipi. “They’ve been wonderful to us from the very beginning, when we kept our front door propped open during the long hours of renovation. People would stop in and encourage us. They liked it that we were making a run-down space beautiful, and that we were bringing something to Dixon that didn’t already exist here. There are other Italian restaurants, but nothing upscale like this one, nothing like the Basil Tree Ristorante. ❚