By Joseph Cannariato   Published Jun 05, 2006 at 5:42 AM

"Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby," sang Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in the 1968 hit single of the same name.

A handful of years before the release of that popular R&B single, a few fellows named Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Martellano showed the world how cool was done, as the fabled Rat Pack.

Not familiar with Martellano? That would be Angelo Martellano, 70, Milwaukee native and for the past 19 years the owner/proprietor of Angelo's Lounge and Piano Bar, 1686 N. Van Buren St.

A life-long Milwaukeean celebrating 50 years in the hospitality and entertainment fields, Martellano poured his love of music and people into the foundation that is Angelo's. His energy and charisma illuminate the joint. He is a one of a vanishing breed with a direct link to the halcyon days of Sinatra's Rat Pack. He knows how to show you a good time; Angelo Martellano is the real thing.

A fact known to his beloved regulars: "Angie" took a 13-year working vacation in California primarily during the '60s. In 1964, Martellano happened to run across Sinatra and his crew in Las Vegas, shortly after Ol' Blue Eyes had left The Sands for Caesar's Palace.

With a remarkable display of chutzpah, guile and wits, Martellano met Sinatra and parlayed a legendary "Frances meet Francis" introduction into an invitation to rub elbows with the Rat Pack during its final years.

"Frances meet Francis" is such a classic, several touring comedians have stolen it over the years and claimed it happened to them. It didn't. It would be criminal to repeat Martellano's historic first meeting with Sinatra in this article. The real story needs to be heard first person. Stop by his lounge and twist his arm, and Angie might regale you.

When it comes to the classic Vegas-style, Rat Pack-era lounge with an enchanting piano bar featuring live music Wednesday through Saturday nights, Angelo's Lounge is definitely the real thing. Trends come and go. When Angelo opened his lounge in 1987, friends and peers thought he was out of touch with the pulse of the late '80s.

"So many people told me to give up the old style, book rock bands and charge a cover," Martellano explained. "But I believed there were enough people who wanted the standards, the old beautiful songs. I was the only piano lounge in Milwaukee for many years. Now there are more than a dozen, the younger people are waking up to the great songs of their parents and grandparents. We were the first to bridge the generation gap."

If you've ever seen a real Picasso or Van Gogh at an art museum, or if you were fortunate enough to have heard Frank Sinatra sing live, you know what it is like to experience an original. You sense a resonance -- a depth of presence -- that exists only with the real thing, and is missing from the myriad copies and imitations littering the landscape. So it is as you step into Angelo's, where the door doubles as a time portal.

"There aren't too many great ones left anymore," observed Senior Master Sergeant Vincent Leto, of the 440th Wing of the US Air Force Reserves. Leto recently returned from active duty in Qatar, supporting the Iraq invasion. "The stories Angelo tells, the people he knew, Angelo is a living link to an era when Milwaukee was great."

As you enter the lounge, you find yourself awash in dimly warm, diffuse lights that introduce a timeless, classy feel. Your eyes catch a visually complex décor designed by Martellano, "to always give the patron something interesting to look at."

Memorabilia and pictures of the many singers and celebrities who have visited Angelo's over the past 19 years adorn the walls. A large picture of Martellano posed with Sir Tom Jones rests in a place of honor. The great Welsh singer first visited Angelo's over a decade ago on a recommendation from a local promoter, and now stops by whenever he performs in Milwaukee.

As you grab a seat at the bar or at one of the cozy tables, Martellano, or his loyal bartender of 17 years Bonnie Harris, greets you and engages you in light banter. Harris and Martellano treasure the regulars who visit each night, and welcome newcomers as well.

The crowd mix ranges from Angelo's childhood friends to middle-aged professionals to tattooed 20-somethings awakening to the joys of a good drink and a great, timeless song. The drinks of choice are a stout Bourbon Manhattan or Angelo's smooth as silk Martini -- hand-made and the perfect complements for the nightly live music.

"I found Angelo's six years ago when a friend raved about this place and brought me here," noted Rita Sanchez, a self-described "big German girl with a Mexican last name" from La Crosse. "Angelo has the best martinis in town, and I love the colorful mix of people and music."

On Wednesdays, talented Ginnie Smith plays piano and sings. Thursday through Saturday Angelo's long-time featured artist Norma Angeli takes the intimate stage. Every night different guest artists arrive, mingle and deliver accomplished vocal or musical performances.

On a recent Wednesday, pianist Lou Cucunato wowed the crowd with a deliciously fluid medley of songs. He was joined by French horn player Neal Chandek on a handful of pieces that left patrons applauding for more. From well-known names such as Warren Wiegratz and Dave Hazeltine to a revolving door of local talents, every night provides tasty guest performances.

Two regular performers and crowd favorites are none other than Martellano and his daughter Marcella. Most every night, a regular will cajole Martellano into singing a couple songs or playing a number on his trumpet. Though he downplays the performances, Martellano's 70-year love affair with music shows no signs of waning.

Marcella inherited the musical genes from her father. She delivers jazz standards with a deft skill that defies her years. She recently signed a record deal with the Burst Collective.

"Gifted with an incredible voice and a stunning interpretive style, Marcella's debut recording brings a retro jazz twist to our catalog. Heads will turn and ears will perk as word spreads of this undiscovered gem," a label representative wrote.

The ultimate host, Martellano may have poured a drink for three generations of your family. Enjoy Angelo's while you still can. Now 70 years old and showing no signs of slowing down, Martellano reflected "This has been a wild horse ride. I love the action and I always have. Retire? What else would I do?"


Angelo's Lounge and Piano Bar is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 3:30 p.m. until bar time, and Saturdays 9 p.m. until bar time. (414) 347-4144.