BY JEN KENT | PHOTOS BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
For Jerry and Marie Arenas, the restaurant business is a lifelong affair.
“I grew up in a restaurant called The Rafters, on the south side of Milwaukee. It’s no longer here, [but] that’s where Marie and I met,” recalls Jerry. “I’ve been doing steaks my whole life. I’ve probably cooked over 2 million [steaks] now.”
Their first venture together was Steakhouse 100, a West Allis restaurant the pair ran for seven years. In 1992, the duo opened Porterhouse, a steakhouse located near the airport, but Lake Country living drew their restaurant ambitions westward.
“We lived in this area in Lake Country, and every time we wanted to go out to eat, there wasn’t, in our opinion, a lot of nice places to go,” Jerry explains. A space in downtown Hartland became available in 2006, and the Arenas purchased the building that houses Palmer’s Steakhouse, now a beloved Lake Country institution. “The building was built in 1903,” says Jerry. “We gutted the whole restaurant ... and put it back to what it was in the years when it was built.” After months of renovations, Palmer’s Steakhouse opened its doors in 2006, and today the interior exudes early 20th century charm. Wood paneling lines every wall, white Christmas lights twinkle overhead, and a large stone fireplace invites diners to linger.
The menu itself features the usual steakhouse fare — “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” says Jerry — but the Arenas also hired a seafood-savvy chef, who introduced fresh fish and oyster specials to the menu when the restaurant debuted. “The menu started with basically the same recipes that I grew up on at The Rafters,” Jerry adds. “We brought chef Mark [Dzian] on, and that added the seafood dimension that we didn’t have. Mark took it to a different level.
“... The menu is pretty basic, when you think about it,” Jerry continues. “We’re steak and potatoes, and the fish dimension that we’ve added on is a great feature. We’re all inclusive, so you get soup or salad [and] potato, pasta or fresh vegetable with the meal.”
In true family business fashion, the Arenas’ son, Tony, joined the restaurant’s executive team after graduating from Marquette University. His chief roles are that of marketing expert and wine list curator, and Palmer’s Steakhouse quickly earned Wine Spectators’ prestigious Award of Excellence under Tony’s leadership. (The Arenas’ daughter, Lisa, is also involved with the family business, but in a more limited capacity.)
And while Palmer’s Steakhouse’s impressive list of accolades is certainly a point of pride for the Arenas family, their crowning achievement is perhaps instead how they’ve used their restaurants as platforms for good.
“Tony battled a disease called cystic fibrosis, and we’ve raised over $2 million for that disease,” explains Jerry, adding that a double lung transplant in Oct. 2015 thankfully saved his son’s life.
“Now we’re concentrating our efforts on making people aware of how important organ donation is, so we use the restaurant as a platform to get our message out there, just like we did with cystic fibrosis. … We have a matching grant from a family in Madison; once we raise a half a million dollars, they’re going to match our half a million, so we’ll have 1 million dollars. There will be a professorship at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Tony’s name for physicians to work on life after transplant. The life expectancy of transplant patients is only five years — some are one [year], some are 20 [years]. ... The money that will be left in his name forever.”
To raise funds, the Arenas host an annual block party in the Village of Hartland, complete with live music, silent and live auctions, a 50/50 raffle and, of course, plenty of food. This year’s fundraiser is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 25. To purchase tickets or learn more, visit Palmer’s Steakhouse at 122 E. Capitol Drive in Hartland. MKE