Bradenton's Joey D's Chicago pizza expands to Sarasota

Bradenton staple since 2004 began in Minneapolis in 1994

cschelle@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2013 

Bradenton staple Joey D's Chicago Style Eatery & Pizzeria is now tossing pies in Sarasota, too.

The restaurant has been in Bradenton since 2004 at Cortez and West 14th Street. It is operated by Chicagoans Bob and Maria Dennis and Bob's brother Tommy Dennis. Before opening in Bradenton, the restaurant operated its previous decade in Minneapolis.

Now, Joey D's is in Sarasota after a soft opening last week at 3811 Kenny Drive, off of Cattlemen Road beside Interstate 75. A grand opening is planned during the first week of January. The new location is part of a long-term strategy to add more family-owned locations in Sarasota and in Ellenton, co-owner Tommy Dennis says.

The Sarasota location is also owned by Terry Gutowski, a Sarasota resident and native of Wausau, Wis., who has known the Dennis family for 25 years.

"We feel like we're an authentic Chicago-style eatery, and we feel like we're representing that demand better than anyone else in the area," Gutowksi told the Herald.

Just like the Bradenton restaurant, you'll find homages to Chicago sports teams including the Bears,

Blackhawks, Bulls and Cubs, mixed in with a bit of White Sox, as well as all the games on TV.

Of all sports, Joey D's is a hockey haven in paradise, a nod to the family's roots playing the game. You'll see dozens of Chicago Blackhawks photos, memorabilia, autographs and NHL games on the big screen, as well as a penalty box-style bar near the entrance. At the Bradenton restaurant, you might see Hall of Famers Jacques Lemaire of the Montreal Canadiens and "The Golden Jet" Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks stop in for a bite.

A lot of credit for the memorabilia goes to Dennis' friends from his minor league career. He grew up with Mike Peluso, who won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. Peluso's jersey is on display appropriately at the penalty box bar. The journeyman tough guy, also Dennis's golfing buddy, holds the Blackhawks' single-season penalty minutes record with 408 in 1991-92.

Dennis's journey as a goaltender in the competitive junior league system took him to outposts like Flin Flon, Manitoba, where Philadelphia Flyers legend and part-time University Park resident Bobby Clarke was born. Dennis made it up to the double-A professional East Coast Hockey League for the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds, and eventually called it quits.

"My hockey career was over in about '93, and my brother Bobby and I didn't know what we wanted to do," Dennis said. "Bobby was a plumber, and I was an unemployed hockey player."

So the two Chicago natives dug into their Italian-Irish roots and decided to open up a pizzeria called Joey D's in Minneapolis in 1994. You'll find deep dish pizza, Chicago's Vienna Beef, as well as Philly cheese steaks on the menu at Joey D's.

"Our Streets of Chicago menu makes you feel like you're in Chicago eating it, and the restaurant makes you feel like you're in Chicago," he said.

After 10 years, they sold the location to two brothers from Chicago, and the restaurant there is still open today, now known as Chris and Rob's Chicago Taste Authority. (A Joey D's in Naples has no relation to the Bradenton location.) Tired of the cold, the pair came to Bradenton in 2004.

"It seems like every 10 years we try to change something," said Dennis jokingly.

The family named the restaurant after their hockey-playing brother Joey, who battled a rare disease called Cockayne syndrome until he passed away in 2000 at age 32. The effects of the genetic disease cause difficulty gaining weight, short stature, premature aging and an impaired nervous system. Joey, whose picture hangs in the restaurant, was only expected to survive until he was 12, but fought on for another 20 years.

"He carries the torch for us. He gives us the guidance, you know what I mean? A special kid," Dennis said.

Now that torch burns bright in the spacious Sarasota location, featuring 150 seats, about double the size of the Bradenton location. The only tweak in the food is that the Sarasota restaurant will serve bratwursts, Gutowski said. Delivery and to-go service is also offered, as well as valet parking in Sarasota, Dennis said.

The location was attractive because it's beside a hotel and Interstate 75, Tommy said. It was already paying off Friday during a packed lunch service.

"A lot of our customers in Bradenton are coming from Sarasota, and it's a great section of Sarasota that anyone can get to," Dennis said.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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