Rustico fans rejoice! Expansion is on the horizon for the Spanish-meets-Italian eatery located at 722 Lake St. in Oak Park. Rustico Mediterranean Fusion is moving to the former home of Oak Park Brewing, 155 S. Oak Park Ave., but don’t expect the Lake Street storefront to go dark. The location is set to transform into Rustico Mexico — a sibling establishment focused on fare inspired by the cuisines of Oaxaca and Jalisco.
Initially Gabriel Padilla, chef-owner of Rustico, had not planned to operate two Oak Park restaurants. He was only seeking to expand customer capacity for his current business. Years spent working simultaneously at Café Iberico (now shuttered) and Piccolo Songo in Chicago gave Padilla the foundation for Rustico’s hybrid menu full of award-winning paella and house-made pasta. The unique combination has drawn a dedicated fan base since opening five years ago.
“On the weekends we have been turning away more than 150 people per night because we just don’t have the space,” said Padilla. “The new location will have more room, but it will have the same feeling and menu.”
The goal to expand Rustico’s footprint was born out of the pandemic. Padilla credits his loyal customers for seeing him through the darkest days of the past two years and wanted to be able to welcome in as many of his repeat guests as possible. Rather than allow turning people away to take a toll on his business, Padilla jumped at the chance to purchase the Oak Park Avenue building because it will easily triple the seating capacity of Rustico’s current location. Plans include a layout that accommodates approximately 250 guests making it “easily” one of the largest restaurants in Oak Park.
Construction has already commenced on the property and Padilla realistically anticipates opening in three months if everything goes smoothly with the Village of Oak Park’s inspection and liquor licensing processes. Some of the more rustic barnwood design elements are being retained, but the central wall dividing the former home of Hamburger Mary’s and the main dining room is being removed to create an open floor plan. The kitchen will be visible to diners and a large wood burning oven will serve as both a cooking hearth and focal centerpiece.
Since Rustico opened in 2018 Chef Jorge Muñoz has been Padilla’s “right hand” in the kitchen and will lead the kitchen at Rustico Mediterranean Fusion after the move. Chef José Gonzalez, a newcomer to the team, will lead the kitchen at Rustico Mexico. Padilla, who is known for being hands on in the kitchen, will float between the two establishments.
“I will be a little bit here and a little bit there,” said Padilla. “Our current staff will move from here to the new space and Rustico Mexico will have an entirely new team of servers, managers and cooks.”
Though Padilla had initially intended to close the Lake Street location after the move, Gonzalez’s serendipitous arrival allowed the chef-owner to make plans to transform the Lake Street location into Rustico Mexico. Gonzalez, who was formerly employed at Libertad in Skokie, brought enough talent and knowledge to inspire the duo to create a new menu full of Mexican dishes that honor Padilla’s childhood spent on a farm in Jalisco and Gonzalez’s roots in Oaxaca.
Once Rustico Mediterranean Fusion opens on Oak Park Avenue the Lake Street restaurant will close for a few weeks while some cosmetic improvements are made to the space. Diners can expect a fresh coat of paint and new artwork to announce the arrival of Rustico’s menu of elevated Mexican fare. Diners can expect house dishes like lobster chili rellenos and New York strip steak with sweet potatoes with tamarind-habanero sauce and goat cheese. Colorful house made tortillas will lay the base for tacos filled with beef tenderloin and garnished with bone marrow. Plans include tableside ceviche service and an arsenal of margaritas and mezcal cocktails.
“I am proud of my team for making this possible,” said Padilla. “I want to deliver more to the people of Oak Park who have been so supportive of me over the years.”
While construction continues in the new space, Rustico will remain open for business as usual on Lake Street.