After more than three years in development, the conversion of the former Great Lakes Bank building to an upscale boutique hotel is done.
Workers put finishing touches on the extensive renovations late last week, and La Banque Hotel staff got its first test run Saturday at a "fire up the kitchen" soft opening event with dinner and tours.
The hotel has retained a number of features of the old bank in the new decor, including three vaults, safe deposit boxes repurposed to display liquor bottles behind the bar, box keys dangling from lobby shelves and box front plates to mark room numbers.
About 90 people were served at the event, according to the hotel Facebook page.
After guests had dinner in La Voute (which is French for "the vault"), owner Claude Gendreau offered a few comments to mark the occasion.
He first thanked the entire staff, then introduced the management team: Meg Sakka, hotel manager; Dominique Tougne, chef de cuisine; Tom Donnelly, chef-in-residence; and restaurant managers Scott Anderson, Michael Brann and Apryll Killham.
Prior to joining the La Banque team, Sakka worked at a Chicago hotel, and she worked for a number of years in Aramco's hospitality services department.
Tougne is from France and has been a successful chef in Chicago for nearly two decades, much of that at Bistro 110. In 2012, he started his own restaurant, Che Moi.
Tougne's colleague from Bistro 110, Donnelly studied in France and has 20 years of experience with French Bistro style cuisine.
Gendreau said he had heard many good comments from guests who praised the quality of the service and the food.
"I've been overwhelmed by the kind of staff we have," he said.
In keeping with the hotel's bank theme, Tougne presented Gendreau with a gift to mark the occasion, an antique Chinese chest full of treasure — actually gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins that Tougne promised to share it with guests at the end of the evening.
"One of my first reactions when I heard about this project was even if he doesn't hire me, I am going to help him, because there are so many things I see that can be done," Tougne said. "Working for Claude is not work. It is just a good time."
Gendreau also thanked his guests for providing the staff with an opportunity to gain experience in a new setting.
"You are part of an experiment," he said. "It's a leap of faith on your part to be here tonight."
Guests were rewarded for that leap with a meal that offered a preview of the bistro's fare, including shrimp basquaise, sauteed foie gras, asparagus carpaccio, braised lamb shank, steak au poivre, vegetable tajine, hamburger and more.
Gendreau reserved a special thank-you for Homewood Mayor Richard Hofeld.
"If it wasn't for him, this would never have come about," Gendreau said. "He alerted me this building was going to close."
Gendreau described how Hofeld helped bring the people together to make the deal and how he led the village's effort to provide support for the project. He also thanked the Homewood Board of Trustees for its support.
In December 2012, Homewood trustees approved awarding $900,000 in tax increment financing incentives to the multi-million dollar La Banque project.
"This is an example of public-private partnership," Gendreau said. "We owe all this to the mayor."
Hofeld, when talking about the hotel, often expresses his appreciation for Gendreau's vision and investment, noting that without a viable project following the bank's closing, the building could have remained empty indefinitely, creating a great liability for the downtown area.
"This has really been a wonderful ride, and it's only the beginning," Hofeld said Saturday. "This is the genesis of what we're doing in our downtown. This puts new life into our entire downtown. I don't think there's an establishment like this hotel or restaurant in the south suburbs."
Opening festivities continue this week, with a grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony set for Saturday. The hotel and bistro will open to the public Monday, June 15.
Contact Eric Crump at [email protected]
La Banque Hotel