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'The busiest corner in the state': Local restaurateur, developer wants to build a high rise in Wauwatosa

The founder of Mo’s A Place For Steaks, and two Mo’s Irish Pubs, has faced neighborhood opposition.
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Posted at 5:33 AM, Dec 23, 2021

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Local restaurateur and developer Johnny Vassalo sees high demand for dining out, even as the pandemic persists.

His plans to expand in the Milwaukee area, however, do not include more restaurants. The founder of Mo’s A Place For Steaks, and two Mo’s Irish Pubs, now wants to build a high rise in Wauwatosa.

Vassalo’s downtown Steakhouse on the corner of Plankinton and Wisconsin was a pioneering idea. He banked early on West Town revitalization that is only now truly taking shape.

“Mo's is celebrating it's 22nd year here which is kind of exciting,” said Vassallo, who opened the restaurant in 1999. “The symphony and all the things that are happening with Grand Avenue, I would say Milwaukee is in its renaissance, probably the best Milwaukee's had it since the beer barons in the 1880s. It's very exciting.”

Vassallo, who also has Mo’s Irish pub locations in the Houston, Texas area, says even amid the pandemic, the restaurant business is strong.

“You know, surprisingly, I feel like the business has come back quite a bit and people want to be out, safely, but they want to be out," he said.

Johnny V, as he’s called, admits the challenges include supply chain issues and rising cost of food and labor.

“Our staff wants to make more money, because their things cost more. We've been really conscientious, and I believe as a company we've been ahead of that curve,” he said.

The future for Vassallo’s business is in real estate, and he owns a prime piece of it on what may be the busiest corner in Wisconsin. Vassallo owns the land across the street from Mo’s Irish Pub on HWY 100 and Bluemond Road in Wauwatosa. It used to be an Edwardo’s Pizza Place.

“Wauwatosa is kind of the center of the Greater Milwaukee Area in my opinion,” Vassallo detailed about the County’s largest suburb. “The lake's beautiful, it's fantastic, but when you really look at it from a transportation standpoint, from a jobs standpoint, Tosa's done an amazing job.”

Vassallo’s plans to build a high rise on the corner have been stalled by neighborhood opposition. Three shorter proposals for a mixed-use residential tower did not gain needed support from the Common Council. Vassallo’s latest design is actually taller with 28 floors. Neighbors don’t like that either.

Dozens emailed the Design Review Board now considering the plan.

“Eyesore. Not a good fit. Grossly oversized for location. Absolutely absurd. Insane,” are among the criticisms neighbors listed for the project.

Vassallo said those things are hard to hear.

“You definitely feel these comments. I've been through five or six of these meetings, and the same 50-60 people have come to the meetings to voice their opposition and their personal disdain for me," Vassallo said. “So that's not always great. But that being said, when I looked at the corner, it's the busiest corner in the state. You see that, in my opinion, it's underutilized. Then you start to think, what could go there?”

Since it appears to fit in current zoning law, despite neighborhood opposition, Wauwatosa city leaders would have limited ability to block the project as it’s proposed.

Vassallo is not seeking any government subsidies or tax breaks for the $60 million project. He’s hoping to break ground next year, and hoping to win support.

“Hopefully, like West Town, within a few years of people seeing how well we operate and how beautiful the building is and what we can actually contribute to the community," he said. "I think most of the people will agree it was a good decision.”