By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Jun 15, 2023 at 11:04 AM

It was nearly a year ago that we reported that Safina, a new Sicilian restaurant from the Safina family, would be opening at 785 N. Jefferson St.

But this week the family-owned restaurant has officially opened its doors, marking a milestone for Giovanni Safina and his sons Sal, David and Joe, who – after a five year hiatus – have built yet another restaurant where they can welcome guests with gracious hospitality and nourish them with beautifully presented Sicilian fare.

But guests should exercise patience as they pay their first visits to the highly anticipated restaurant. After all, the kitchen is still adjusting to its new quarters, and many of the employees are brand new and still learning the ropes.

“It’s been a long time in coming,” says Sal Safina, noting that the opening was delayed for months due to the current staffing shortage, and that the restaurant still could use a few more hands on deck to make it run as smoothly as possible.

 “But it feels good to be able to welcome guests into our restaurant again. We were born and raised in restaurants. It’s in our blood. And we’ve really missed it."

Exterior of Safina 

A new life for an historic space

Located in the Cathedral Square neighborhood, Safina resides in a Greek revival style townhouse which dates back to 1858. Known as the William A. Webber House, the building was constructed as a residence before being transformed into a bar and restaurant. Among the elements that attracted the Safinas to the historic building was its welcoming residential look and feel. 

“Our customers are like family to us,” notes Sal. “And our restaurant is very much like our home. We want people to come here, into our house, and enjoy a meal with us.” 

Even before they enter the restaurant, guests are greeted by a renovated staircase built from richly colored Brazilian Ipe wood by Sup Design, the local business which is also responsible for much of the wood detail inside of the restaurant, including the coffered ceiling in the dining area and the front of the cozy bar at the back of the restaurant.

That bar sits against a newly constructed cream city brick wall, which was created to blend with the original brick in the dining area. Ask about it and Sal might just tell you how his father, Giovanni, painstakingly cut the bricks himself as they were constructing the wall.

Bar at SafinaX

Guests can belly up to the bar for specialty cocktails, including the Sicilian Spritz (Aperol, Solera and house prosecco); a basil gimlet made with Rehorst gin; the Safina Negroni; and Gio’s Grapparita, a riff on a margarita made with grappa, lime and Cointreau. Giovanni’s special Malted Milk Ball Martini, a favorite from Centanni Piano Bar, is also on the menu.

The bar also features domestic and imported beer along with a collection of eight Italian wines on tap, from Prosecco and sparkling rosé to Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Nero d’Avola and a Tuscan red blend.

Meanwhile, head into the dining room and you’ll find seating for about 38 guests at warm wooden tables with welcoming, but casual place settings.

Dining roomX

Hanging plants and pendant lights contrast the cream city brick wall to the south, while stained glass inserts offer privacy and warmth to the north

Shelving in one corner of the dining room displays mini replicas of carrettu sicilianu, ornately decorated donkey-drawn carts which were historically used for both hauling light loads as well as offering visual entertainment during celebratory parades and weddings.

Moor's headsX

Guests will also find Moor's heads (graste), decorative hand-painted vases. Among the folklore surrounding the origin of graste are stories of jealousy and forbidden love, all of which conclude with a beheading. The vases are ubiquitous in Sicily and often filled with basil plants.

On the eastern wall facing Jefferson Street, the family has displayed a collection of intricately patterned maiolica ceramic plates, hand-thrown and painted in yellows, blues and other vibrant hues. They were created for the Safina family by an artist in Sicily and brought back to Milwaukee in the family’s carry-on bags so that none of the pieces were broken.

Decorative platesX

Nostalgic dishes

Joe Safina, who heads up the kitchen, says the Safina menu is largely composed of familiar customer favorites which have been served over the years at Safina restaurants including Giovanni’s and Tutto’s. Some have been reworked slightly to give them a more modern appeal; but they remain familiar, accessible and as delicious as ever.

Traditional bread service (an increasing rarity) accompanies each meal, complete with Sicilian olive oil made from a blend of cerasuola, biancolilla and nocellara olives, some of which are grown in an olive grove located on property owned by the Safina family. 

Bread serviceX

Highlights of the menu include classic starters like Giovanni’s baked mozzarella with San Marzano tomatoes ($11); Melanzana Fritte (fried eggplant strips served with marinara and parmigiano ($11); and Insalata di Mare, a traditional Sicilian seafood salad featuring calamari, shrimp and octopus served with finely shaved celery, onion and slivers of carrot in a red wine lemon vinaigrette ($18). 

Insalata di Mare
Insalata di Mare

But guests will also find dishes like Seppe’s Patate Vastase featuring herb-roasted potatoes, red onion, n’duja, fresh mozzarella and guanciale ($15); and Arrostito, a melange of Sicilian roasted cauliflower, broccoli, charred sweet peppers and pepperoncini oil ($12).

The menu features a short list of salads and sandwiches, including the crowd-pleasing Sicilian steak sandwich with mushrooms and onions ($25) and Gio’s Home featuring veal cotoletta, sauteed peppers, mushrooms, onions and Parmigiano ($19).

Entrees include Momma’s Chicken Vesuvio featuring breaded chicken with white wine and lemon sauce, roasted fingerlings, peas and onions ($26); Gio’s stuffed filet featuring center-cut filet stuffed with provolone, 18-month prosciutto de parma, caramelized onions, Roma tomatoes and Gio potatoes ($45); and newly upgraded veal offerings. The veal rounds formerly used to create the Safinas' veal parmesan and veal cotoletta are now made with Strauss veal ribeye and served with chef’s choice of pasta or salad ($48).

Veal parmesan
Veal Parmesan

And yes, there are pasta dishes. Options include Fussiloni al Pistachio featuring guanciale, pistachio pesto and pistachio crudo ($25); Busiate con Gamberi featuring Trapanese pesto (made with almonds and tomato), arugula, broiled shrimp and busiate pasta ($25); and Frutta di Mare showcasing black linguini with fish broth, shrimp, calamari, octopus and Calabrian chilies ($28).

Frutti di Mare
Frutti di Mare

Chef Joe says he will also be rolling out nightly specials including veal specials on Tuesdays; spiedini on Wednesdays; fresh pastas on Thursdays; Italian-style fish fry on Fridays and heartier plates like steak Florentine on Saturdays.

For dessert, guests can order housemade dark chocolate panna cotta with tart cherry preserves and pistachio brittle or ciambellone (lemon mascarpone bundt cake with blueberry preserves and espresso cream). 


But the cheesecake is a can’t-miss. Made from a recipe that Giovanni’s sister taught him to make 50 years ago, the rustic dessert features layers of graham cracker crust, creamy cheesecake and a thin layer of vanilla-scented sour cream on the top. It’s served with macerated strawberries, cream and a drizzle of vanilla salted caramel.

Before you go

Safina is open Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 4 to 11 p.m.

Reservations are highly recommended and can currently be made by calling the restaurant at (414) 488-9578. Beginning June 22, reservations for up to 8 guests can also be made online through OpenTable. Guests interested in hosting a private gathering in the restaurant's second-floor dining room should call the restaurant directly.

Safina is currently hiring for numerous front and back-of-house positions including bartenders, waitstaff and various kitchen positions. Serious inquiries can be directed to the family by email at

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.