Tag Archives: Bluestone Development

Now That’s Italian

January 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon at the Sons of Italy hall on South 10th Street. The hum of conversation is punctuated by greetings from the regulars, and by 11:15 a.m. the hall is near capacity. Downtown business professionals mix elbows with construction workers at family-style tables. During campaign season, the Thursday lunch draws politicians like flies to honey—make that cannoli.

They are all here for the traditional Italian fare served up with a genuine smile and occasional wise-guy crack. Today’s menu: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and fresh bread. Quintessential Italian but far from ordinary. The sauce has been simmering for over 24 hours, its seasonings taking on a richer, more complex flavor, just like the neighborhood. The troupe of volunteer cooks never work off a recipe. Rather, the sauce is a happy combination of a few family recipes adapted over the years. Over 240 gallons are made for these Thursday lunches, a tradition that dates back 50-plus years. The men have cut over 200 pounds of lettuce for the salads and hand-rolled 2,000 meatballs. And if the early crowd is any indication of the late lunch numbers, they will need every morsel of this copious amount of food.

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The Sons of Italy is not much to look at from the outside. The only nod to its Italian heritage is the green, white, and red striped awning over the front door. But once inside, the hearty aroma of tomato sauce, the cheery red and white checked tablecloths, and ever-present laughter make you feel like you’ve walked into an Italian family reunion.

“It’s like coming home to Nana’s kitchen,” says Rich Mengler, who has been working the Sons of Italy lunches for 14 years. “I’m the kid here,” the 77-year-old quips. And if the name Mengler sounds more German than Italian, it is. “I’m an IBM,” he jokes, “Italian by Marriage.”

 Settlement Days

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha in 1893. The railroads, stockyards, and meatpacking plants provided the promise of work. Most came from Sicily—in particular, Carlentini—and settled in the area bounded by Pacific and Bancroft streets to the north and south, respectively, and from the river to 13th Street. They built businesses and wrote to family in Italy to come to the American Plains’ burgeoning Italian community.

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By the time immigration from southern  and eastern Europe was cut off, more than  5,000 Italians called Little Italy home. “It was almost like a separate small town” within the larger city of Omaha, says Mike DiGiacomo, member of the Santa Lucia Festival committee and trumpet player in its marching band.

Ties to the old country were strong, so strong that residents turned to their heritage to stave homesickness for Sicily. In 1925, Little Italy residents hosted the first Santa Lucia Festival, a New World version of the centuries-old festival held each year in Carlentini. They managed to raise an astounding $2,000 to replicate the statue of St. Lucy in Sicily for use in the Omaha festival.

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The Santa Lucia Festival gradually evolved into a three-day party, including Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, a parade down 10th Street, music, rides, games, food, and the crowning of a queen at Lewis and Clark Landing. It is one of the Midwest’s oldest festivals, running continuously for 90 years, save the four years of World War II.

DiGiacomo says tradition and heritage have kept the festival afloat: “While many of these types of festivals have died off, the Santa Lucia Italian Festival has continued to defy the odds. The people who grew up with it, who are part of it, are so dedicated to St. Lucy and what the festival stands for. This festival is what gives the city character, a sense of community.”

 New Development with a Historic Foundation

The passing of time brings change. It’s inevitable. One of the neighborhood’s revered institutions, Caniglia’s, closed its doors in 2006. And when Frank Marino decided to finally retire at 80 and close the 13th Street grocery store his father had started 88 years prior, people lined up to buy the last of his homemade Italian sausages and ravioli.

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But there is also continuity in Little Italy. Orsi’s Bakery, at 7th and Pacific, is still going strong. Owner Jim Hall spent much of his childhood at the bakery. His Little League coach was a driver for Orsi’s, so Hall would help him make deliveries on the weekends. In 2010 Hall purchased Orsi’s with his wife, Kathy. “It has such a longstanding history. I didn’t want to see it close,” he explains rather matter-of-factly.

Orsi’s offers a variety of Italian meats, homemade Italian sausages, pastas, and olive oils, but bread from old Orsi recipes is the foundation of the business. Pizza is take-out only, or as old Mr. Orsi used to say, “Get it and hit it.”

Hall now sees a revitalization of Little Italy. DiGiacomo concurs: “While there was a feeling that the neighborhood was deteriorating in the late ’80s and ’90s, that feeling is no longer present. Recent development has helped the neighborhood grow again and redevelop that sense of community.”

The Santa Lucia Hall is under renovation. Out of the ashes of Caniglia’s Steak House has risen a community of town homes called The Towns, developed by Bluestone Development. Its clapboard exterior recalls the siding popular with most of Little Italy single-family dwellings. Driveway names like Lucia and Caniglia Plaza acknowledge the neighborhood’s heritage. Twenty-something urbanites gravitate toward Bluestone’s apartment complex at 8th and Pacific.

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The neighborhood’s price point and feel are appealing, says Bluestone’s Christian Christensen. “The vibe of Little Italy is very connected,” he says. “It’s a longstanding neighborhood and eclectic with 25 to 55 year-olds hanging out together.”

To wit: Fork Fest, a neighborhood festival centering on music, a bocce ball tournament and scavenger hunt, camaraderie, and food (of course). Andrew Marinkovich is one of Fork Fest’s founders. Its success, he asserts, is a communal effort. “You become part of the neighborhood’s fabric” when you move there, Marinkovich says. “You are so close to everyone, you are forced to interact.”

A tight-knit, historic neighborhood is what Michael Giambelluca and his wife, Donnamaria, were seeking when the couple relocated to Omaha this past summer after Michael accepted a job as Creighton Preparatory School’s new president. “Little Italy still seems to have that old-fashioned neighborhood feel that Donnamaria and I had growing up in our own respective areas of New Orleans,” he says. “People know each other and look out for each other. And people have a real pride in the place, that it has deep roots, and wonderful tradition.”

Apartment Construction

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann, Thom Neese, and Malone & Co.

When it comes to looking for the perfect apartment, bigger is not always better…or affordable. And with the main demographic of apartment dwellers in Omaha being Generation Y—those ranging in age from 22 to 27 years-old—they are making their feelings known and developers are listening.

Christian Christensen, owner of Bluestone Development, has been working in commercial real estate for nearly two decades and owns several apartment buildings, including The 9ines and Joslyn Lofts. He knows intimately the wants and needs of those looking for their next space to live.

Christian Christensen, owner of Bluestone Development.

Christian Christensen, owner of Bluestone Development.

“We have done condos, townhomes, row homes, historic renovations…” says Christensen, “but our focus right now is on apartments…all urban. Part of that is due to the market and part of it is due to our passion for apartments.” While the Old Market has been for years the go-to location for urban living, Christensen says that things are changing, especially with the development of Midtown Crossing. “Basically, anything east of I-680 are projects that we look at.”

With his primary customers being Generation Y, Christensen says that price is a big concern. “To make [these spaces] affordable, you’ve got to work hard on floor plans.” He explains that most developers today are designing smaller floor plans because, not only are they more reasonably priced, but “people are heading toward a no-waste type of living.”

“When you look at how homes were developed 15 years ago, you really only utilize 60 percent of your home on a daily basis. The other 40 percent you’re paying for, but not really utilizing it. It’s the same thing with apartments.”

Combine this with the fact that fewer people are living with roommates, these highly sought-after urban apartments are becoming more accessible to people who, a few years ago, could only dream of living in these locations.31273_0279_Web

Jerry Banks, portfolio director of real estate for NewStreet Properties, LLC, also works with developing and remodeling apartments, as well as retail and office spaces. The Omaha-based company owns properties all over the country, including Tiburon View and Huntington Park Apartments in Omaha,. While NewStreet does not develop urban locations and his tenants tend to range from 20- and 30-somethings to empty nesters, Banks says that his tenants are also looking for scaled-down floor plans. “We’re seeing more and more trends toward smaller units, both in studios and one bedrooms.”

Safety and security is another big focus of his tenants, says Banks. “That’s always been and will continue to be a very important renter requirement…very high on the list.”

To meet the demands of his residents, Banks says that NewStreet has been actively addressing a variety of security concerns, including changing all exterior lighting to brighter, more efficient LED bulbs, as well as implementing new, fully automated locks for all their apartments.

Banks refers to the possible security breach of buildings that have master keys or by former residents who may have had copies of keys made in the past. “None of our apartments have a master key of any type…we’ve de-mastered 100 percent of all the locks on all of our properties.” Each key is also tracked by a bar code, allowing the property owner to know who has borrowed a key and when that key was returned.31294_0219_Web

“We put a real emphasis on safety and security for our residents,” says Banks. “These are just some things that most residents don’t see and think about but just take for granted.”

Both Christensen and Banks say that their tenants are looking for convenience and ways to make their lives easier. Fitness facilities, both indoor and outdoor, as well as pet-friendly spaces and amenities, fire pits, and plenty of grilling areas for entertaining are options that NewStreet is providing to their residents.

Bluestone is exploring the options of adding a hot yoga studio, as well as the possibility of shared gaming rooms and a community kitchen that may provide cooking lessons and opportunities for socializing.

Both Christensen and Banks say that customer service is their main priority. “Going forward, everyone is going to have to look at their operation and see how they can deliver outrageous service,” says Christensen. “Because that’s what our customers get when they go to other places. They go to Starbucks…they go to Urban Outfitters…they get outrageous service. They can expect that service where they live.”