Joe Segreto once described running restaurants as “a comeback business,” explaining that the joy of making customers happy and becoming friends with many of them would always lure a restaurateur back, despite the industry’s ups and downs.
He staged several comebacks himself, and he was contemplating another before his own extraordinary chapter in New Orleans restaurant history ended this week.
Segreto died Monday. He had been battling cancer and died while in hospice care. He was 75.
His last restaurant, Eleven 79, was known for fine Creole-Italian cuisine and the social scene around its darkly elegant bar and its brick-and-timber dining room. It also was known for Segreto himself, the ever-present and always-dapper host who over several generations earned a reputation as one of the city’s great restaurateurs.
“He was really a New Orleans legend,” said Eddie Sapir, a former New Orleans councilman and a longtime friend. “People gravitated to Joe. He had a great personality. He was intelligent, he was funny and he paid a great deal of attention to detail. He made sure everyone who came through his door felt important. He made sure every gentleman felt like a king and every lady felt like a queen.”
Facing poor health and citing the surge of newer restaurants around town, Segreto reluctantly closed Eleven 79 in April. But even then he still discussed his desire to give the restaurant business one more go.
“My enthusiasm and my optimism tell me that if I stick to it, I could come back, no matter how many new restaurants are out there,” he said in an interview this spring.
Born in the French Quarter, he was named Salvadore Segreto after his grandfather, who emigrated from Sicily and established his family in New Orleans a generation earlier. But he was always known as Joe, after his father, Joseph Segreto.
His family ran restaurants and clubs around the French Quarter starting in the 1940s, and as Segreto recalled, there was no question that he too would work in restaurants when he came of age.
“We were restaurant people,” he said. “Restaurants were what we did. When I started looking for work, I went to places where my father had friends.”
That led him to Brennan’s Restaurant in the mid-1950s as a teenager. He said Brennan’s was where he learned the fundamentals of fine dining and hospitality that he would practice throughout his career. The Brennans were impressed by their young protégé too, said Ti Martin, whose mother, Ella Brennan, ran the restaurant at the time. They encouraged him, she said, and they watched approvingly as he came into his own in the restaurant business later.
But first, at age 20, Segreto took an early detour from the restaurant business that would prove pivotal. In 1960, he moved to Las Vegas, and he was tending bar at the Sahara Casino there at the same time that New Orleans-born musician Louis Prima was performing on its stage. The two knew each other from their days in the French Quarter, and soon, Segreto became Prima’s manager, a job he would hold for about 10 years. During this time, he befriended many top entertainers, including singer Tony Bennett, with whom he remained close for the rest of his life.
Back in New Orleans in the early 1970s, Segreto ran a succession of important restaurants, including Elmwood Plantation on River Road and Broussard’s, a historic French Quarter eatery that under his watch became a hub for visiting celebrities. Joe C. Marcello was a partner in both of those restaurants, and he said Segreto invested them with his personality and a deep devotion to his work.
“He was such a beloved guy, by everyone, and he put that back into what he did,” Marcello said. “He loved the business; he loved to study the business. He read cookbooks constantly; he studied his art constantly. When you saw him, you saw someone who loved what he was doing.”
He later co-owned the Shadows, a Mandeville restaurant he ran with Sapir.
He left the restaurant business in the 1980s, when the oil bust brought hard times across the local economy. But by 2000, he was lured back, this time to open his own place in the Lower Garden District with the late chef Anthony DiPiazza.
Segreto remembered the debut of Eleven 79 as a homecoming of sorts, as customers from past chapters of his career became regulars again.
“I’ve served the father, the son and the sons of those sons,” he said. “I’ve served generations of people who have become my friends and customers. You have the opportunity in this business to make your customers and friends happy.”
The Segreto family is planning a memorial service. Arrangements are pending.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.