It was boredom with the pizza delivery business that got Mease and his then-wife, now partner, Lennie Busch interested in opening the sit-down restaurant we know as Lennie’s in 1989. It was boredom that got him interested in the home-brewing business that led to the Bloomington Brewing Company in 1994. And it was boredom that spurred the recent purchase of a farm out on Loesch Road that will become home to a bigger brewery, and perhaps to imported water buffalo from Italy, prized for the mozzarella made from their milk, or to pampered pigs who will be turned into cured sausages.
“We try not to get him bored very often,” laughs Busch, “because then you’ve got a whole new thing to deal with.”
Given that one of its owners has an insatiable curiosity and appetite for change, Lennie’s is a remarkably stable and well-established restaurant in its 18th year. A casual, comfortable eatery, it specializes in pizzas, pastas, salads, sandwiches, and pub snacks.
For many Bloomingtonians there has always been a Lennie’s and they are extraordinarily attached to its standbys. Once, after the hire of Chef Fred Manion, a Culinary Institute of America grad, Mease and Busch thought they’d come up with a new house dressing, something homemade and delicious to replace the original dressing, a mix of Wishbone Italian and blue cheese crumbles. There was an uproar; one woman even approached Busch in a grocery store to ask, “How can you do this?”
So the house dressing remains unchanged, and there are a number of other menu items that the folks at Lennie’s know better than to tamper with, including Lennie’s Original (a roast beef sandwich with bacon, lettuce, tomato, signature marinated onions, and melted mozzarella), the Bacon Turkey Melt, and the Teriyaki Chicken Salad. Another staple is Alberini’s Spaghetti and Meatballs, a recipe Mease acquired by following Mrs. Alberini around her Ohio kitchen, translating her broken English and her “a handful of this and a pinch of that” into instructions a chef could follow.
Indeed, Chef Manion says that even when they innovate, the kitchen at Lennie’s is all about presenting seasonal, regional specialties, such as Cajun food for Mardi Gras, German for Oktoberfest, and spicy Caribbean during winter, in a familiar, consumer-friendly way.
With the addition of the brewery next door, Chef Manion has also tried to incorporate beer into his cooking. In fact, he is the author, with David Schwandt, of Hopped Cuisine, a cookbook available at the restaurant that showcases such delectable dishes as Stout Shepherd’s Pie and Ale-Glazed Lyonnaise Potatoes.
For Mease, the key to Lennie’s long success is having the discipline to keep quality constant over time, even when it might be cheaper to take short cuts. “You don’t have to please everybody,” he says, “but there’s a few things we do and we do ’em really well and we just keep doing that.”
Even if it makes him a little bored.