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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 9, 2018 6 months ago

Businessman takes a leap of faith into restaurant business

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Cornerstone Builders founder and owner Tony Leopardi has always wanted his own Italian restaurant. All it took was seeing a sign — and convincing his wife.
by: Andrew Warfield Lee-Collier Editor

Tony Leopardi wanted to open his own Italian restaurant for “years and years and years.” But his wife, Gina, who grew up in the business, wanted no part of it.

That's why he knew if he were to ever fulfill his culinary dream, the opportunity would come to him in a heaven-sent sign, just as it has during 30 years of owning and operating Fort Myers-based Cornerstone Builders, a renovation company specializing in kitchens.

In early September, that sign appeared, literally, outside the former Tilted Kilt Irish Pub at 13851 Tamiami Trail in Fort Myers. It read “available.” A new sign there now reads “Leopardi’s.” The restaurant opened Nov. 10. As of mid-week prior, the restaurant reported it had take more than 300 reservations for the opening day. 

Leopardi has built the restaurant the same way he grew Cornerstone Builders into a $40 million-plus business with 285 employees — on gut instinct and a leap of faith. Other keys to his success include exclusive use of his own employees. All demolition, drywall, painting, plumbing, electrical and installation of tile, countertop and cabinet installation is performed by Cornerstone employees in order to control the quality of every aspect of the project. No deposit is required — a rarity in remodeling — and products it manufacturers are guaranteed for the as long as the customer owns the home.

Just days before he saw the sign in front of vacant Tilted Kilt, Leopardi decided to not purchase an existing Italian eatery nearby. But he had convinced Gina that, at age 70, it was time for him to fulfill his dream. Once the ambitious eight-week project to convert the former 11,000-square-foot, two-story Irish pub into an authentic Italian eatery was underway, she was all in.

“As against it as she was, when the other restaurant became available she said, 'If that's what you want to do, then OK,'” Leopardi says of his wife’s tacit approval. “It started with ‘OK,’ and now she's making recipes for the restaurant. Without her I would have never done it, especially with how big this place is and what it's going to take to make it operate.”

What it will take, Leopardi says, is a staff of 40 to operate seven days a week for lunch and dinner. He's making a big investment in the eatery, which Lisa Gury, director of marketing for Cornerstone and Leopardi’s, says is how he pursues success. They declined to disclose the investment amount, calling it “substantial.”

“Tony invests not only in his business but he invests in his people. That's why I have no doubt this business will be successful.” Lisa Gury, Cornerstone Builders and Leopardi’s director of marketing

“Tony is not afraid to take a leap of faith, and he's not afraid to invest,” says Gury. “Sometimes people open a restaurant on a shoestring, and they really don’t invest or they don't have the money to invest, they don't take the time, and they don't do the necessary things to make sure they are successful.”

Of course, running a successful restaurant is one the business world's greatest challenges.  

One way to success, Leopardi says, is to offer a variety of experiences. Downstairs, for example, will be for dining only — with no TVs to distract from the experience. The upstairs, which seats 70, will have TVs and offer live music. The strategy is to cater to family and intimate dining in the evenings, then the nightclub scene late nights until 2 a.m. Evening dining music will be softer, late night more lively.

In addition to TVs upstairs — Leopardi’s will offer NFL Sunday Ticket and other sports broadcasts — there is another bar and an outdoor patio. The upstairs dining area also includes a stage.

Leopardi equipped the restaurant in part with contents of the recently closed La Grotta Italian Grill. “(The owner) had some equipment he didn’t want and I got a good deal," he says. "I bought all of his paintings and an espresso machine for a granite countertop he wanted. It was a good deal for him and a good deal for me.”

He also seeks to appeal to a wide range of tastes and budgets to draw a crowd, everyone from family to intimate dining. The menu features northern and southern Italian cuisine, “and a little of my grandmother’s Sicilian recipes,” Leopardi says. Menu prices range from a $10 pizza to a handful of $24 entrees. 

His message to customers, Leopardi adds, is “For 30 years you’ve been inviting me into your kitchens, now I invite you into mine.”

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