Restaurateur Joe Bartolotta's New Gig: Transplant Advocate

Jul 22, 2013

For decades, Joe Bartolotta helped build up some of the area's top restaurants - only to fear he wouldn't be around to see their success.

Joe Bartolotta, co-owner of the Bartolotta Restaurants
Credit Bartolotta Restaurants

For the past 20 years, Joe Bartolotta's name has been synonymous with fine and quality dining in southeastern Wisconsin.

As co-owner of the Bartolotta Restaurant group, he oversees some of the area's most successful eateries, including Lake Park Bistro, Harbor House, Bachhus, Northpoint, and Rumpus Room. The group also just marked this year the 20th anniversary of Ristorante Bartolotta, the first of its restaurants.

But now the restaurateur is taking on a new, highly personal role - as a transplant advocate.

For 30 years, Bartolotta battled diabetes. His small blood vessels were compromised, affecting the eyes, fingers, toes and, eventually, his kidneys.

"It's a slow creep, debilitating disease," he says.

But he says he never let the chronic illness slow him down - until about three years ago, when his kidneys began operating at only 15 percent capacity. That's when, he says, he had to start considering his options.

"Dialysis for me was not an option," he says. "I could not be strapped up to a machine for 4 hours a day, 3 times a week. It just would have been a horrible life for me, and the prognosis for me would not have been a really long one."

He knew he have to get a transplant, but finding a donor is a difficult and long process of chance. Luckily, as he had done throughout his life, Bartolotta had to look no further than his family for support. Bartolotta's healthy 31-year-old brother-in-law Jamie made an ideal donor.

"He put his hand up right away and said, 'I'll be tested!'" Bartolotta says. "He's a very selfless guy who gave of himself."

The surgery took place in mid-February. Only 15 minutes after the surgery, Bartolotta’s kidneys went from 12% function to 98%.

"My life changed overnight," he says. "It is a miracle."

Although Jamie’s function went from 100% to 46%, the kidneys are resilient and his remaining organ will bounce back to 98% function in the next few months as it grows to compensate. Still, Jamie was back to work in less than three weeks.

Bartolotta says the pair have an even stronger, special bond now.

"Well, I'll tell you, as we get close to each other, we both start to tingle a little bit - I'm kidding," he jokes. "Our kidneys sort of feel the reunion coming as we touch each other."

"Imagine a 747, a big aircraft, filled with people. Now imagine 350 of them crashing at the same time. Horrific idea, horrific thought. That's how many people die every year waiting for a transplant. So if we saw 350 airplane crash with all passengers on it, we'd do something about it. And yet, passively we let a lot of people die on a transplant list. And it can be helped." -restaurateur Joe Bartolotta

Bartolotta says he hopes his story will inspire people to consider stepping up to become an organ donor. He warns that there is a lot of bad information about donating kidneys that's outdated. It is no longer such a complex or invasive surgery, nor has it been shown to shorten the lives of these incredibly healthy donors.

"People need to be aware of it isn't as horrific as people may have been led to believe in the past," Bartolotta says. "I know it's a huge sacrifice, it's a huge gift, but it's the one thing you can do that absolutely saves lives."

For Bartolotta, the surgery has meant another 15 to 20 years of life, though he'll still have to manage his diabetes.

"But I think I'm going to be great, and my outlook is I'm going to keep opening restaurants," he says.

That's good news for Milwaukee's restaurant scene. Currently, the Bartolotta Restaurants employ more than 1000 people and show no signs of slowing down. Plus, Bartolotta says a Milwaukee study shows his restaurants play a significant role in developing many of the city's chefs.

“Part of my responsibility is to not only enhance my life and my family’s life, but to enhance the people around us and bring everybody’s standard of living up a little bit,” Bartolotta says. “I take that very, very seriously."

With his new lease on life, Milwaukee diners can expect to see Bartolotta's name around for a long time to come.

Bartolotta also has two more restaurants, Joey Gerard's, in Greendale and Mequon.

Eleanor Peterson contributed to this story. This interview originally aired June 4, 2013.