July 31, 2007
Jacques “Jack” Leonardi’s ambitions were decidedly modest when he walked into Paul Prudhomme’s restaurant in 1990 and convinced the legendary chef to give him a job as a prep cook.
“My uncle had a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale and I was thinking about going to work for him,” says Leonardi (MBA ’06). “He ended up going bankrupt, so I just stayed in New Orleans.”
A native of upstate New York and graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Leonardi had fallen in love with the food and music of New Orleans while stationed in the city, but he had never considered a culinary career until the opportunity to work at his uncle’s restaurant came knocking.
Hoping to learn a little more about the business, Leonardi began working part time at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen while still an officer in the Coast Guard. It was there, under the tutelage of Prudhomme, one of the giants of Louisiana cuisine, that Leonardi discovered his avocation.
In 1996, after gaining experience in a number of local kitchens, Leonardi opened his own restaurant in a cozy cottage on Oak Street. Jacques-Imo’s Cafe began as an inexpensive neighborhood restaurant with a festive New Orleans vibe and a menu heavy on comfort food, but Leonardi’s experience with Prudhomme inspired him to introduce increasingly sophisticated creations. He added a pistachio sauce to grilled mahi mahi. He spiked blackened redfish with a crab chili Hollandaise. He crusted a drum fish with potato and served it with a caper beurre blanc.
“It kind of evolved,” Leonardi says. “I call it a poor man’s Commander’s Palace.”
That concept––sophisticated food in a casual, funky setting–– proved to be a hit with diners, making Jacques-Imo’s one of the city’s most popular restaurants. On most nights, throngs of patrons wait up to two hours to sample Leonardi’s boldly flavored riffs on New Orleans food, dishes like shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake, “Godzilla Meets Fried Green Tomatoes” (a giant stuffed soft shell crab positioned Godzilla-like on a tower of fried green tomatoes), and his magnificent fried chicken. Leonardi himself presides over the organized chaos with Falstaffian good cheer, splitting his time between overseeing the kitchen and clowning with customers.
“I realized that to make it, you really need to have repeat customers,” Leonardi says. “A lot of restaurants make it the first year because people try it, but then they don’t ever come back. The repeat customers also give you your advertising word of mouth. I’ve never had to do any advertising; it’s always been word of mouth.”
The success of Jacques-Imo’s led Leonardi to take on new business ventures. In 2002, he opened Crabby Jack’s, a po-boy shop catering to the lunch crowd, and in 2004, he licensed the Jacques-Imo’s concept to restaurateurs in New York, who opened Jacques-Imo’s NYC on the Upper West Side.
There was one piece of business, however, that nagged at Leonardi. In 2006, he returned to the Freeman School to finish the MBA degree he had begun years earlier while still an officer in the Coast Guard. He received his diploma at last year’s commencement ceremony.
While Leonardi says he has no plans to open any new restaurants in the foreseeable future, he has been working on expanding his catering and retail businesses, including introducing his own line of hot sauces.
“I think we just try to make it comfortable, like you’re coming into somebody’s home,” Leonardi says of Jacques-Imo’s formula. “No airs and no pretensions. You’re just here to have a good time.”