From Italian cuisine to surf ‘n’ turf, Gibsons Restaurant Group corners the market for high-concept, fine-dining experiences 

For nearly 35 years, Gibsons Restaurant Group (Gibsons) has pushed the limits of conceptual dining. With locations across Texas, the company is known for the finest food, and service with a smile. As Chief Executive Officer, Steve Lombardo III begins: “Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse opened in 1989. My father had owned and operated Sweetwater Restaurant at the same location, and after about 13 years closed it down to pursue a new concept. The new restaurant soon became Gibsons. At the time, my father partnered with Hugo Ralli, who had been the general manager at the legendary Tavern on the Green in New York. Their respective skillsets complimented each other perfectly. My father was the concept visionary and ‘customer schmoozer’, while Hugo had culinary and operational expertise. 

“They did not open the second location until eight years later and that was only due to a turn of fate. The parent company of the restaurant next door, Hamburger Hamlet, went bankrupt. Hugo and my father seized upon the opportunity to grab the location. While they were unsure of what their concept would be, they kept the location open under the name Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, a name Hugo was never particularly happy with. The intention was to experiment with certain dishes while they decided on the concept. The restaurant took off despite their original intentions and remains one of the premiere seafood restaurants in Chicago. 

“In the next two decades, many other locations and concepts would follow. These included Lux Bar, a new take on the neighborhood bourbon bar, serving burgers and sandwiches in a laid-back environment. There’s also Quartino Ristorante, a modern, urban-Italian restaurant and wine bar, serving small plates of pizza, pasta, and other traditional Italian dishes.  We recently added a second Quartino at Grandscape, a development in the north suburbs of Dallas. Another concept is Gibsons Italia, a modern upscale steakhouse with an Italian accent where diners can enjoy the best view in Chicago. There’s also several Gibsons and Hugo’s locations dotted around the Chicago suburbs. 

“We also operate several locations through various partnerships. We’ve got The Boathouse at Disney Springs in Florida in partnership with Steve Schussler, the creator of Rain Forest Café. There’s Bazaar Meat in Chicago, a carnivorous celebration of all things meaty, which we established with the help of the José Andres Group. We also worked with them on Bar Mar, a more casual dining spot, focused on seafood dishes.” 

Customer care 

With over three decades of success under its belt, Gibsons shows no signs of slowing down. Steve ruminates on the secret ingredients that have kept the company thriving: “There are a whole host of factors that have contributed to our success over the years, but if I had to distill it down to the single most important item, it would be our extreme commitment to the customer. We say that there is no length to which we will not go for our customers. We have served food from other restaurants to our customers because that’s what they wanted. We have picked up the check for customers who left and went elsewhere because they waited too long. We’ve catered events at their homes and have delivered difficult to obtain tickets to events for customers. 

“In this business, it is literally impossible to be perfect. There are no ‘six sigma’ specialists in fine dining. We do our absolute best to be perfect, but this is a people business, and people make mistakes. It’s about showing the customer that we care. That means going the extra mile, even when we mess up. My father used to say, much to the chefs’ chagrin: ‘You can mess up the food and save it with great service, but if you give a customer bad service, you’ll lose them forever.’  We’re fortunate to have great employees who take this to heart.”  Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse

Having grown up in the restaurant business, Steve never thought he would end up following in his father’s footsteps. However, in the end he was won over by the dynamic legacy of Gibsons. “I grew up around the business, watching my father operate nightclubs, bars and restaurants since I was a boy. I did some ancillary office work and bussed tables as an early teen, but at the time I had no aspirations to go into the restaurant business. My father wouldn’t wake up until after I was at school, and I would be asleep in bed by the time he came home. Sundays were his day off and he was asleep all day. This worked to my advantage in high school where even with some late nights out, I somehow still managed to arrive home ahead of my parents. 

“I ended up going to law school and practiced corporate law for 17 years at Katten in Chicago. I counseled CEOs of companies and did a lot of private equity mergers and acquisitions. The restaurant company was a client of course, and I helped with leases for new locations, fundraising, and later directly importing wine for several of the locations. I was usually at the table when my father, Hugo, and the CFO were having big picture discussions about strategy. 

“As an outside advisor to the company, I started advising them about succession planning about 20 years ago. My father’s response to that was to exercise an extra hour a day – who needs succession planning if you can live forever? Eventually though, he decided that he wanted to keep the business in the family. I have three siblings, and all had successful careers, but all are now working in the restaurant business,” Steve reveals. 

The Gibsons Restaurant Group is now under its second generation of leadership, with Steve’s siblings, Michael Lombardo who oversees IT, facilities and quality control, Liz Lombardo Stark, who handles social media, marketing and public relations and Christa Vrabel, who oversees digital marketing and operates the online retail channel.  Their goal is to bring the Gibsons hospitality experience to more customers. As Steve concludes: “When you boil it all down to the simplest essence of what we do, our job is to make people happy. That’s a pretty noble purpose in my opinion. Growing more units and expanding into different markets is about making more people happy. So, in a perfect world, in five years, we would have at least five or six more restaurants in at least two or three new markets.”