Oak Creek — A building roughly 120 years old in the old Carrollville neighborhood has a new life.
Mike La Susa's Restaurant opened at 8955 S. Fifth Ave., serving Italian-American food in a Tucson-themed interior with patio seating outside.
La Susa opened the doors at the end of July following a renovation that took more than a year to complete. The building has gone through its share of changes over the years, but none more recently until La Susa bought it in June 2009.
"The building was sort of left for lie for the last 20 years," he said.
Adding to a colorful history
For many years, the building served as a bar and rooming house, La Susa said. He has been told that during Prohibition things were stored in hidden compartments all over the building as well as in the woods.
Many people, making beds on the pool tables, lived there while working in nearby factories. People continued to reside upstairs as late as 2005, La Susa said.
These days, the business is far removed from what's considered Oak Creek's main commercial district, but it is part of an area of the city - old properties along Lake Michigan - that city officials have prioritized for redevelopment.
La Susa hopes those plans will proceed, acknowledging his business is a bit "off the beaten path."
"What we have to get people to do is come this way," he said. "Our big challenge is everybody is always going toward Howell and not toward the lake. Even though we might be closer to the folks in the subdivisions here, they're so accustomed to going west they don't have a whole lot of reasons to drive this way.
"We're trying to do some things to make ourselves somewhat of a destination spot."
The 27-year-old La Susa has worked in restaurants since he started busing tables when he was 14. Prior to opening his own business, he worked at Balistreri's in Wauwatosa and was an executive chef for Sodexho.
"It's his dream coming to life," said his wife, Julie. "It's something he's always wanted and it's unfolding almost like a storybook."
Eating away at recession
At first glance, opening a business during an economic recession would not appear to be easy.
But La Susa has a different take on it. He looks at it as a good thing - real estate prices made it easier for him to purchase the building, and contractors working on the renovations were clamoring to get work.
"If the economy hadn't been in the condition that it was, we might not have been able to do it," La Susa said.
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