At the heart of Logan Square, amidst the numerous taquerias and dive bars, lies an unabashedly exotic venue. MASADA, known for its Middle Eastern cuisine and atmosphere, adds a unique flare to its urban landscape. Opulent and expansive, boasting multiple levels and three outdoor patio spaces, MASADA still manages to convey an inviting atmosphere. Each detail reflects the vision of the owner from the mirrored bathrooms, inspired by Bruce Lee’s film, Enter the Dragon, to the meticulously constructed menu.
So what is the inspiration behind this singular venue?
At their core, passion and creativity are offshoots of love and perhaps this love is the source of the warmth, which exudes from MASADA. My first encounter with MASADA left me with a sense of utter admiration and respect. The sights, smells and overwhelming attention to detail appealed deeply to my sense of aestheticism. I was intrigued to meet the person behind the scenes, curious if the creation was a reflection of its creator. I was not disappointed. Shadi Ramli mirrors the energy, passion and personality, of the venue itself. He leans forward, and sensing my anticipation asks, “You want the true story of MASADA?”
Ramli is an industry veteran with over 20 years in the game. He and his famliy have experienced previous success with Sultan’s Market in Wicker Park and Lincoln Park. However, he has also experienced his fair share of heartbreak and challenges. At 25, he lost his father to a stroke and his mother preceded to fall into a deep depression.
“I needed something to pull her out,” Ramli said. The excitement of a new venture was just the thing. He made her a promise, “I am going to put your name in lights.” He kept his word. Masada, his mother’s name, glitters across the face of the venue, serving as a testament to his love and the fulfillment of a promise. From MASADA’s conception, Ramli has sought to bring the root of the industry, which is hospitality, to the forefront and subsequently he explains, “The restaurant industry… saved my family.”
Your establishment truly exemplifies hospitality. How would you define this trait and how does one achieve it?
I feel it’s the same way as if someone were to come to your house for dinner. Just give them your best. That’s it.
What type of person succeeds in this industry?
The restaurateur is a special animal… The restaurateur likes to be their own boss, likes working with others and has to be a strong leader. It’s like that quote, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” You also have to be able to bend. People are going to test you… you can’t let them get under your skin. So you must have a tough skin and a strong back.
How do you maintain authenticity in such a commercial, fast-past industry?
Authenticity is very important. It’s our niche and everyone needs a niche. My mom is the executive chef. We serve the same dishes we eat in our home… We travel back home to get spices and seeds; we grind our own. You can’t cut corners with spices.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced as a restaurateur?
I always thought I would be a restaurateur, but this industry has turned me into an amatuer lawyer, an amatuer architect, amatuer expiditor, an amatuer politician….at the bar I am an amatuer counselor. Keeping everyone happy is a challenge from the customers, inspectors and politicians.
What is the singular most rewarding aspect of your job?
Seeing someone enjoy their meal, smiling and nodding to them self in approval… Seeing someone comfortable and enjoying themselves in your place, and the biggest compliment you could pay me is to come back, again… Especially twice in the same week.
What is unique to Chicago in this industry?
Chicago is an enormous melting pot, but it has this friendly mid-west feel. I was in New York and I noticed: great food, service was okay, but not a lot of smiles. Because it’s so overpopulated… It’s like, “I have a million and a half customers and I don’t need to impress you.”
Also, it’s right in the middle of the US… All railroads run through Chicago from east to west north to south, and we get our pick of everything coming through. That’s why we have such a great quality of food. The grade of vegetables is really fresh, the meats are really fresh, we have our own slaughter houses. It’s a trade center, similar to the Middle East.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
Mensaf, lamb shank served over saffron rice with pine nuts.
What is your top drink suggestion for a first time patron?
Ah, that’s easy! The Habibi Hendrix… A mix of fresh cucumber juice, organic simple, lime juice, and Hendrick’s gin, topped with soda water, and as a garnish a cucumber swizzle.