Making the ordinary extraordinary
Joe Mama’s gets creative with mac and cheese

By NICHOLAS DETTMANN - Daily News

Dec. 15, 2017

Shane Brown of Oconomowoc, center, talks with his brother, Evan, left, and Kirsten Becker, right, of Oconomowoc on Friday night at Joe Mama’s Bar and Grill in Colgate.
John Ehlke/Daily News

COLGATE — Open less than a year, Joe Mama’s Bar and Grill, 4600 Highway Q, has quickly earned a following for its creativity on the menu.

“The menu reflects what I want to see when I go out to eat,” said Joe Vella, co-owner.

But, where it has separated itself is with a simple dish: macaroni and cheese.

“We are known for our mac and cheese,” Vella said.

How?

Well, Vella and co-owner Al Wasley see macaroni and cheese as a blank canvas for an artist, free for interpretation and modification in whatever way they want.

For example, the Thanksgiving Mac ‘n Cheese had the macaroni and cheese as the anchor or base, but mixed with turkey, stuffing, gravy, corn and potatoes, and served with a side of cranberry sauce.

Or there is the Mac Attack Cheeseburger — a half-pound Black Angus burger topped with Joe Mama’s signature Mac ‘n Cheese and applewood smoked bacon.

There is some kind of twist to the macaroni and cheese every week.

Wasley said more than 2,000 people are drawn to Joe Mama’s per week to find out the next twist, thus leading to its selection as one of the 10 recommended restaurants in the county by Daily News readers in a recent informal poll.

“Joe Mama’s has amazing food,” said Alexandra Bellini of Pewaukee. “Excellent service and a great atmosphere. It’s really had a positive impact on that area.”

“Mac and cheese all day,” said Steve Hennessy of Waukesha.

Not bad for a restaurant that opened in December 2016.

“It’s so incredibly exciting,” Vella said about the quick reception from the community. “We expected to do OK, but it’s on a whole other level.”

Wasley added, “It’s incredible to take something from nothing and turn it into a hot spot. We have about 2,000 people coming through here each week and that’s pretty awesome. It started like that. We really haven’t had a lull.”

Vella and Wasley believe that happened for a couple reasons. The first was location.

Despite the lack of signage to the establishment and not visible from a major north-south road (Highway 164). Yes, it is on County Line Road, but once it crosses Highway 164, the traffic tends to dip dramatically as it goes into the country side with plenty of trees lining a winding road.

“It has the acreage; it has the parking,” Wasley said.

They also each have an extensive background in the restaurant industry, which helped develop the restaurant. Vella’s parents owned a restaurant for more than 30 years.

“I started washing dishes and worked my way through the kitchen,” he said. “Went to the front of the house after working in the kitchen and I fell in love with bartending and never really looked back.”

Wasley had a different route to restaurants. He started about 16 years ago after being in sales.

“I wanted to work for myself and I bought a small custard stand and it evolved into a shot-and-a-beer bar and it just kind of grew into the restaurant business,” he said. “I really enjoyed it.”

Wasley admitted he tried to get out of the restaurant business after a few years. But he had found his niche.

“I realized you could be creative and have a lot of fun,” he said.

Vella and Wasley got to know each other about 10 years ago after Vella visited some places owned by Wasley. One of those places was Rookies Sports Bar & Grill in Okauchee.

“Everything that Al did was successful,” Vella said. “Every bar that he ran he did a real fantastic job. And, I learned as much as I could where I was at. You see somebody do well, you want to learn from them.”

So, Vella gave his phone number to Wasley’s girlfriend and told him he and Wasley should collaborate on a restaurant idea.

Wasley was open to the idea because of the reputation he heard when Vella managed Foolery’s, also in Okauchee.

“He’s got a bigger than life personality,” Wasley said. “He came with a great reputation.”

Their first meeting was July 2016. Wasley had just sold Tailgaters in Sussex and Vella was running Foolery’s.

“It was scary and exciting,” Vella said of his first few meetings with his future co-owner.

Wasley added, “It’s a feeling out process. We’re about to get married to each other in business and you want to make sure we’re the right people, the right fit for each other.”

Thankfully, they got their answer quickly.

“For me, it was seeing the passion, the drive he had,” Wasley said.

Vella said, “I knew that Al was a smart business man and I wanted to learn from him.”

As it turned out, they’ve learned a lot from each other to take Joe Mama’s to a level maybe thought, at one point, unimaginable.

Some of the specials include 12 jumbo wings for $5.95 on Mondays, $1.95 jumbo beef tacos on Tuesdays, all-you-can-eat spaghetti on Wednesdays and, of course, the fish fry on Fridays.

“The menu kind of came from basically ... every place I’ve worked, I’ve worked at fine dining and shot-and-beer places, and I’ve taken a little bit from every place,” Vella said.

But the signature dish is Joe Mama’s Homemade Mac ’N Cheese — with American, cheddar, cheddar jack, parmesan and pecorino romano, served under a toasted breadcrumb topping.

“It’s just stellar,” Vella said.

Wasley called macaroni and cheese a “comfort food.”

“I don’t care how old you are, you still like it,” he said.

And Joe Mama’s is about to get bigger.

This month, representatives from the Travel Channel’s “Food Paradise” show will collect clips for an episode to run some time in 2018.

“We’re going to have to expand,” Wasley said. “We’re bursting at the seams.”


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