By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jan 31, 2024 at 11:02 AM

After over six decades, the lights have gone dark at Lisa’s Pizza, 2961 N. Oakland Ave.

The restaurant observed its final evening of service under the watchful eyes of Owners Gary and Teresa Bongiorno on Saturday, Jan. 27.  

But change is on the horizon for the pizzeria, long known for its Italian fare and (particularly) its ultra-thin crust pizza topped with ingredients like fresh mushrooms and housemade Italian sausage.  

When the restaurant reopens its doors at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6, it will do so under the ownership of Hannah O’Hara and Dean Rein, who closed on the East Side property on Tuesday, Jan. 30.

The new owners plan to retain a good number of the elements for which Lisa's Pizza has long been known, including its pizza and appetizers, familiar staff members intimate, dimly lit dining room. But O’Hara and Rein will also bring a wealth of new energy, along with some new menu items, to the long-beloved restaurant.

Left to right: Hannah O'Hara, Teresa Bongiorno, Gary Bongiorno, Dean Rein
Left to right: Hannah O'Hara, Teresa Bongiorno, Gary Bongiorno, Dean Rein

60 years of delicious

It was 1960 when brothers Joseph and Michael Bongiorno founded Lisa’s Pizzeria with a bit of help from their parents’ Cosmo and Mary Bongiorno. For over 25 years, Joe remained at the helm. When he passed away in 1986, the restaurant remained in the family, passed along to his sons Scot and Gary, who, along with Gary’s wife (and longtime Lisa’s employee) Teresa,  operated Lisa’s for yet another 35 years, more recently carrying the restaurant through one of the roughest times in restaurant history.

When Gary and Teresa, both in their 70s, put the restaurant up for sale in 2023 they did so with the hope of finding someone who would carry on the legacy that the Bongiorno family had started.

Interior at Lisa'sX

“It was time,” notes Gary, who says that his health was among the many reasons the couple decided to step away from the difficult work of operating a restaurant. He says they were very relieved to find O’Hara and Rein, who they believe are a good fit to take over the business.

“They’re new. They’re energetic. They’re super excited and they have new ideas,” he says. “It’s time for the place to be rejuvenated.” 

Teresa, who worked the front of house for the restaurant for over 50 years, nods her head in agreement.  

“We’ve served four generations of customers here,” she says. “And we have so many amazing memories. We love all the customers who have come through our doors and we will miss them… we stayed open for this long because of our customers. But this has been a long time in coming. And our hope is that those customers will continue to support the restaurant for years to come.”

A new era has begun

Feb. 6 will mark not only a new beginning for Lisa’s Pizza, but for its new owners who have been dreaming of owning their own pizzeria for quite some time.

After years of working for others, O’Hara, a quality assurance technician with a background in food service and Rein, a real estate investor and former Master Lock employee, decided to pursue a new path in the hospitality industry. Fueled by their collective love of food – particularly pizza – they began looking for opportunities to contribute to the local food scene.

O'Hara and Rein
Dean Rein and Hannah O'Hara

“I wanted to be in a space where I could make people happy,” notes O’Hara, an accomplished cook who says that they happened upon the Lisa’s Pizzeria property through Rein’s real estate connections.

It didn’t take more than an initial walk-through of the property to convince the two partners that purchasing the longtime pizzeria was the right move.

“We really love and appreciate the history that Lisa’s has,” says Rein, “The location is great. And we want to pay homage to the hard work that the Bongiorno family has done. But we also want to reenergize this space and allow it to continue to be part of Milwaukee’s history.”

In doing so, O’Hara and Rein plan to retain the full staff at Lisa’s, ensuring that customers will see familiar faces as they return to dine at the East Side Restaurant. 

They have also inherited the restaurant’s recipes, which will allow them to continue to serve many of customers’ favorite dishes, including appetizers like eggplant fries ($12), mozzarella sticks ($10), fried calamari ($10.50), garlic bread ($4.50) and salads ( $10). 

Lisa’s signature pizza will also remain on the menu, available in small (12”), medium (14”) and large (16”) sizes with both classic toppings and a few new offerings as well. 

That includes signature pies (priced $16.50-$25) like the Deluxe (sausage, mushrooms, pepperoni, green peppers, onions and black olives); The Margaret (tomato, mozzarella cheese and basil); the Veggie (mushrooms, pickled red onions, green pepper and black olive); Hannah’s Favorite (pepperoni with whipped ricotta and hot honey); and Hawaiian Heat (pineapple, pickled red onion, Canadian bacon and hot honey). 

Guests are also welcome to “build their own” pies, ensuring that Milwaukee classics like the “sausage, mushroom and onion” combo can still be ordered and enjoyed.

But guests can also enjoy new additions to the menu include Detroit style pizza with a housemade PBR-infused crust and signature crispy bottom and edges. The pizzas will be available in small ($13), medium ($16) and large ($22) sizes and topped with signature or custom ingredients.

For those who love to end their evening on a sweet note, O’Hara will also be introducing housemade desserts including tiramisu, chocolate fudge cake and mini canollis, all priced in the $9-$12 range.

Lisa's new logoX

The restaurant will also sport a new POS system and a newly designed logo which gives a face to “Lisa”, a name that even Teresa says has always been a mystery.

“People always asked who Lisa was,” Teresa says with a laugh. “We always joked that it was my father-in-law’s mistress.” 

Moving forward, O’Hara and Rein also plan to launch online ordering, add a menu of craft cocktails as well as a few new menu additions, including some Italian entrees.

“We’ll also be making some changes to the interior,” says O’Hara. “But not until we have our feet solidly underneath us. And my goal by the end of the year is to make sure that everything that we serve is made from scratch.”

Ultimately, she says, they are both excited and honored to re-introduce Lisa’s to the community.

Rein agrees. “We are excited to engage with our neighbors and build partnerships,” he says. “Connecting with folks and being part of the community is a huge goal for us as we move forward.”

Beginning Feb. 6, Lisa’s Pizza will be open Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 to 10 p.m.

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.