This place is a gas. Imagine: Fancy New Jersey banquet hall meets Tiger Woods.
Red velvet-draped windows overlook lush fairways; soft-red fluorescent lighting washes the interior walls and ceiling beams, between which hang swooping crystal chandeliers.
Framing the dining-room entrances are faux Roman ruin-like marble and stone columns softened with sheer-black fabric.
Older male waiters in dinner jackets and red-vested busboys give the place a slight air of a casting call for The Sopranos, as does the Châteaubriand cooked tableside.
Add a little Dean Martin singing “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” wafting from the house audio system, and a visitor could be forgiven for expecting Snooki or Tony, Carmella, Meadow, and Junior to walk through the front door.
So is the scene at Steven Lelli’s Inn on the Green in Farmington Hills, a 250-seat restaurant that opened last November on Copper Creek Golf Course in the 12 Mile Road location formerly occupied by Loving Spoonful.
Fun and atmospherics aside, the service is impeccable, the retro-Italian very good — and very generous, with portions so big you don’t just go home with a container of leftovers, you leave with a shopping bag.
If the Lelli name rings familiar — and the owners hope it does — that may be because the original Lelli’s on Woodward at Bethune in Detroit was one of the city’s great Italian steakhouses.
It was founded by Nerio and Irene Lelli in 1939, who appear in massive framed photos along with other Lellis that adorn the walls of this new version. The original became famous as the place that invented zip sauce, well known to an older generation and still commercially available. Lelli’s closed in 2000 after a fire ended its 61 years at the original location. A second-generation location, founded by Mike Lelli, opened in 1996 in Auburn Hills.
This Lelli, Steven, is the grandson of Nerio and Irene. He and owner-partner Mark Zarkin (friends since childhood) are attempting to faithfully follow the grandparents’ recipes and menus and revive an old style of Italian dining.
“We are being a true as we can to the original dishes,” Zarkin says.
Five of the waiters and a couple of the busboys are from the original Lelli’s. “People walk in and they see these faces they knew from Detroit,” Zarkin says. “There’s a lot of hugging and kisses going on.”
The original Lelli’s in Detroit opened in 1939; memorabilia cover the walls.
In the dining room, deep upholstered booths add intimacy, and high-backed plush leather chairs surround tables of six and eight. An intimate bar borders the dining area. Off to one side, smaller, private rooms — dark and woody and softly lighted — await private parties and smaller groups. For summer dining, an outdoor terrace seating 100 overlooks the greens.
The timing of this Lelli’s may be just right. There appears to be a wave of longing for old-style Detroit dining, as evidenced in recent announcements that two other long-closed names are being revived.
The London Chop House on Congress, which opened in 1938 and closed in 1991, will reopen later this year at its original address. And Joe Muer’s, the famous fish house on Gratiot that closed in 1998 and was immediately bulldozed, will reopen in the Renaissance Center in the former Seldom Blues space.
“I think that some of them were watching what happened with us, and they see that it can work,” Zarkin says.
Lelli’s has been jammed, staffers say. “Since we opened, you can’t get in without a reservation on Saturday,” our waiter told us. And weekdays aren’t exactly light, either. There was a wait for tables when we were there on a recent Tuesday night.
Another distinction to pass from the first-generation Lelli’s to the third, intentional or not, is the extravagant valet service.
At the old Lelli’s on Woodward, the facade and signage faced the avenue, but the entrance was in the back, off Bethune. You drove through a chain-link fence entrance and into a massive indoor garage attached to the restaurant’s rear, where a pack of attendants took your car, washed it, and vacuumed the interior while you were at lunch.
At the new Lelli’s, there’s no garage, but there’s a long, elegant circular driveway where your car is taken and, if it’s fancy and clean enough, it gets parked nose out. Arriving guests have the sense of walking through a Mercedes or Cadillac showroom on the way to dinner. (Our muddy Toyota Prius was hustled off to the side lot.)
ABOVE: (Left) Owner Steven Lelli prepares Châteaubriand tableside. (Right) Chef Chris Merritt cutting a Chilean sea bass.
While today’s preference for Italian food runs to a lighter style of urban and northern Italian fare, Lelli’s reflects the deeper, heavier red sauce and thick, meaty portions that are closer to Sicilian or southern Italian cooking so popular when the old Lelli’s was at its peak of popularity.
Still, there’s no arguing with the preparation and cooking here, which is extremely good. For example, the lightly spicy and creamy minestrone is in a style not seen much elsewhere. It’s a thick soup, as opposed to brothy, clear minestrone and almost a meal in itself.
In this retro dining spot, the portions are not only outsized, they’re accompanied by a side dish of spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, one of the best things they serve, and enough to be dinner on its own. It’s one of the best Bolognese sauces I’ve had in a long, long time.
“The secret is that we serve so much steak here, that the only meat in the Bolognese is the trimmings from the filet mignon,” Zarkin says. “That was the big secret back in the 1930s that Lelli wouldn’t reveal about his Bolognese that everyone loved. It was that simple.”
The menu, fairly standard overall, is divided into appetizers, salads, pastas, chicken choices, and steaks, which are really the attraction.
There are a variety of veal dishes, assorted pastas, and, of course, the New York strip, filet mignon, and Châteaubriand steaks — all USDA prime (aged 28 days), seared to perfection, and served with a wide variety of add-ons, including the zip sauce.
For a first course, we ordered the oysters Rockefeller. What we got were four oysters so big they looked as if they were on performance-enhancing drugs. They were incredibly fresh and covered in a delicate, creamy sauce with chopped spinach that the kitchen had taken care to drain well before mixing it into the finish.
Almost a counterbalance to all this for those who want something lighter is the aptly named Florine Mark salad, after the diet queen who is a customer, Zarkin says.
An antipasti plate came with the traditional mix of creamy Havarti cheese, salami, mortadella, pepperoncinis, and a couple of super-fresh shrimp, beets, olives, and big silver bowl of cocktail sauce in the center of the plate. All of it was good, fresh, and trés yesterday.
ABOVE: (From left) Calamari with diced pepper relish. Inn on the Green salad: fresh strawberries, grapes, orange segments, Granny Smith apples, and candied pecans over mixed greens, drizzled with raspberry-yogurt vinaigrette.
No matter what we ordered, it tended to be big and did not get finished. For example, a pasta side dish of cavatelli in mushrooms and truffle oil was absolute perfection, but heavy and huge.
For Detroiters who miss this kind of dining, Steven Lelli’s Inn on the Green is your ticket. The qualifier here is that this kind of dining is not for everyone.
Some restaurants we recommend on the strength of the food, some for their ambience, others for both. Lelli’s is recommended for nostalgia, for throwback fun, for the experience, and also a peek at how we used to eat.
But be prepared to take at least half of it home. Marone!