After more than three years in development, the conversion of the former Great Lakes Bank building into La Banque, an upscale boutique hotel in downtown Homewood is done, and the staff has gotten its first test run.
Renovations and preparations came right down to the wire, with workers completing finishing touches and staff training continuing late last week, but by Saturday evening, the hotel and its restaurant were ready for a soft opening “fire up the kitchen” dinner that included tours of the 1925 bank building.
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”), 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 Bran and Scott Apryll Killham,
He said he had heard many good comments from guests who praised the quality of the service and the food.
The hotel keeps many of the features of the old bank alive in the decor, and in keeping with that theme, Chef Tougne presented Gendreau with an antique Chinese chest full of gold. It was chocolate gold, and Tougne promised to share it with guests at the end of the evening.
“When I heard about this project, I thought even if I don’t get hired, I will help, because there are so many things I think to do differently,” Tougne said. “Working for Claude is not work. It is all fun.”
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the kind of staff we have,” he said.
Then he thanked his guests.
“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 their courage with a meal that included choices of appetizer like shrimp basquoise, sauteed foie gras and asparagus carpaccio. Entrees included braised lamb shank, steak au poivre, vegetable tajine and hamburger.
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 La Banque project.
“This is an example of public-private partnership,” he 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.
Hotel officials announced Tuesday the winners of a contest intended to help recover some of the former bank’s history.
John Jacob won two invitations to the grand opening for sharing a story about the Bank of Homewood. His story:
“In the early 1970’s, while attending H-F High School, I worked at Aurelio’s Pizza which was still on Ridge Road directly across from the Bank of Homewood. Every night Joe Aurelio would take the sizable amount of cash generated for the day and deposit it in the Bank of Homewood using the outside drop box. Each night a Homewood Police car would pull up in front of the Bank. Joe would walk out with the cash bag in one arm and two pizzas in the other. The bag was deposited in the bank drop box and the pizzas deposited into the police car. This happened every night. Joe also would send pizzas over to the Homewood Police Station.”
Lynn Burkle won two invitations to the grand opening for sharing a photo featuring the bank form a 1966 yearbook.