New ownership for one of Lawrence’s longtime Italian restaurants

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Justin Wilk is pictured inside The Basil Leaf Cafe on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. Wilk recently purchased the restaurant and has reopened it for lunchtime dining.

Justin Wilk has eaten more pasta in the last month than at any other time in his life. For some of us that would be saying a lot since my motto once was “I put the uh-oh in Spaghetti O’s.” But don’t worry, Wilk is not eating that low-brow fare. Instead, he’s become the owner of one of Lawrence’s longtime Italian restaurants.

Wilk last month took over ownership of the The Basil Leaf Cafe at 616 W. Ninth St. The Basil Leaf is one of those restaurants that got its start in the Miller Mart gas station that used to exist near Sixth and Kasold. Chef and founder Brad Walters started the restaurant in about 2009 and moved into the old Ninth Street location of Joe’s Donuts in 2013.

But Walters has decided to exit the business, and that is where Wilk stepped in. Wilk previously had served as the manger of the 23rd Street Brewery in Lawrence but had left that job to get a career started in real estate. But he decided to jump back into food when The Basil Leaf became available.

“It was just too good of an opportunity,” Wilk said. “It has such a great reputation for its food that I felt like I had to do this.”

With that type of mindset, Wilk said he’s worked hard not to change much about the restaurant’s menu. Instead, the biggest change has come when he serves it. The restaurant is back to serving lunch, something Walters had eliminated. The restaurant also has added catering and take-out service.

“We’re getting some business lunches already,” Wilk said. “We can do lunch pretty quick, which gives us an advantage.”

Wilk said the restaurant’s bar business also has been an emphasis. He increased the restaurant’s wine list to about 20 offerings, including about a half dozen wines from Italy. Wines from Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, France and several from America also are on the list. The bar also has begun a happy hour program from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. that includes both appetizer and drink specials.

Don’t worry about the space becoming some type of night club/bar scene, though. Another constant about the restaurant is that it is small. It has the bar and 10 tables, but Wilk said he found that appealing.

“I like that it is a small cafe and an intimate atmosphere,” Wilk said. “It allows me to talk to the people. I missed talking to customers every day. It has been really cool to already see some regulars.”

As for the food, Wilk said he does expect to add some menu items in the future. For the moment, though, the most popular dishes on the menu continue to be those that helped The Basil Leaf get its start. Those include the basil chicken cavatelli, which features basil butter, mushrooms and a sauce of tomatoes, onions and peppers; the tortellini cordon bleu with a fried chicken scaloppini with panko breading, bacon, mushrooms and alfredo sauce; and the longtime menu mainstay 7-layer lasagna.

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I did reach out to Walters about his decision to sell The Basil Leaf. I didn’t catch up with him, but I did note on social media that he appears to have a new project going. As we’ve reported, he opened Sully & Hanks next door to The Basil Leaf last year.

According to the restaurant’s Facebook page, the eatery has been closed some in recent days. It appears Walters is making some changes to the business, which is in the space that used to house the Presto gas station on Ninth Street. The Facebook post said some new equipment was being installed to accommodate a new menu.

When Sully & Hank’s opened last year it did feature some pretty unusual menu offerings. Those included a footlong chicken-fried hot dog covered in sausage gravy, bacon, smoked cheddar and caramelized onions. Another such dish was deep-fried pork belly with Cracker Jacks.

The restaurant also has some more traditional offerings, but I’ve gotten no word on what the new menu strategy will be. According to the Facebook post, Walters plans to debut the menu on Nov. 1.

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