Olive Garden arrives
General manager Jason Hagarty stands in one of the dining areas during a look inside the almost completed and soon-to-open Olive Garden restaurant in Lakeport Commons. (Staff photo by Jerry Mennenga)

A martini is not a martini without an olive.

That, at least, is the thinking of a true connoisseur.

And to Siouxland residents, many of whom consider themselves connoisseurs of fine food, a city is not a city without an Olive Garden. So as of Monday, Sioux City becomes a real city.

What for years has been a local obsession -- the OG's manicotti formaggio, chicken vino bianco and zuppa toscana driving Siouxlanders to Omaha and Sioux Falls -- has become a reality.

Olive Garden officially opens its newest restaurant at 4 p.m. Monday at 4930 Sergeant Road in Lakeport Commons.

The OG yearning was best expressed by an anxious woman in a big white car who stopped this reporter as he was leaving the new restaurant last week. She rolled down her window and asked if it was open, then looked heartbroken when told that it wasn't, that the parking lot was simply filled with the vehicles of Olive Garden staff members in training. "I've been watching it and marking my calendar until Dec. 11," she said, her brief hopes for an early Italian dinner quashed.

That's the reaction that excites general manager Jason Hagarty, 31, an Omaha native and bachelor with eight years of Olive Garden experience, most recently as general manager in Dubuque.

"I'm excited," he said, noting the reaction of people in public when they find out who he is. "I think it's going to be a good marriage -- us and Sioux City. This is my seventh Olive Garden, and this is the one I'm most excited about."

One reason for his excitement is the ample parking available, more than at any other Olive Garden where he has worked, he said. It includes shared parking with adjacent businesses. The restaurant is just east of Gunderson's Jewelers.

"Sioux City's business activity and growing population make it the perfect location for the newest member of Olive Garden's family of local restaurants," said Valerie Insignares, executive vice president of operations for Olive Garden.

The new restaurant, built in the company's Tuscan-farmhouse design, is the second in the state, with a rustic stone exterior typical of the buildings in the Italian countryside, and an interior accented by Italian imports designed to make the Sioux City dining experience a tribute to the restaurant's Italian inspiration, Hagarty said.

Most new Olive Garden restaurants have been build in the Tuscan-farmhouse design since 2000.

"The decor, the colors -- we just want to make it feel as warm as possible," he said. "Our glassware and plateware is imported from Italy. We want to make it as traditional as possible."

Soaring vaulted ceilings, supported by exposed wood beams, stone and wood accents throughout, and terra cotta tile highlight the interior. And a fireplace is the centerpiece of the large dining area. The 7,399-square-foot restaurant has a seating capacity of 247. And once it is operating at full capacity, there will be 165 employees.

The Olive Garden will be open dinner hours starting at 4 p.m. the first week of operation. Lunch will be served starting at 11 a.m. every day beginning Dec. 18.

Hagarty pointed to the pictures on the wall that also come from Italy and the bar top that is crafted from lava stone, then hand-painted by artisans in Italy with a design created exclusively for Olive Garden. Vibrant imported fabrics decorate windows and dining seats. Hand-painted plates adorn rustic stone and stucco walls, and the lighting fixtures are even distinctly Italian.

The restaurant was designed after the company's Riserva di Fizzano restaurant in Tuscany, Italy, "which is rustic, charming and beautiful -- the perfect atmosphere to enjoy a genuine Italian dining experience," Hagarty said.

Hagarty visited the Rizerva di Fizzano while being trained at OIive Garden's Culinary Institute of Tuscany.

"It was the chance of a lifetime," he said, noting that the Tuscany restaurant serves as the source of inspiration for many dishes on Olive Garden's menu. "We have probably 10 dishes that are actually inspired from that. We have a culinary chef in the mountain area over there and she works with people from Orlando (company headquarters), and they develop dishes and bring them back here."

The Tuscany training time also gave Hagarty a chance to tour the Tuscany wine region, walk through some alfresco open markets, pick out fresh foods and work with Italian chefs to prepare dishes from the market purchases.

The Olive Garden menu is famous for its variety, offering everything from spaghetti and meatballs to fettuccine alfredo, capellini pomodoro, shrimp primavera, lobster spaghetti, lasagna classico, sausage and peppers russica, a variety of pizzas and appetizers -- and wines, of course, an important part of any Italian dining experience. There is also a full selection of beers, cordials and specialty drinks from the bar.

"Anything you like, we probably have," Hagarty said. "We're known for our soup and salad specials. We have three different kinds of soups. Soup and salad and breadsticks -- that's kind of our lunch staple. Everybody loves it, and they always rave about it."

As for the dinner menu? "We have anything from a chicken Parmesan to my favorite, the pork filettino," he said. That would be a grilled pork tenderloin marinated in extra-virgin olive oil and rosemary, served with roasted potatoes and bell peppers.

It is the same menu customers will find in each of Olive Garden's 584 restaurants. With 70,000 employees and more than $2.6 billion in annual sales, Olive Garden remains the leading restaurant in the Italian dining segment. Olive Garden is a division of Darden Restaurants Inc., the world's largest casual dining company.

"So if you come here, you go to Omaha or you go anywhere else that has an Olive Garden, you should be able to sit down and have the same bowl of soup and have it taste the same," Hagarty said.

As for Sioux City's decidedly unMediterranean-like weather, he said he's used to it. He is, after all, from Omaha. "We've been spoiled the last couple of weeks," he said. "Actually, by the time people leave here, hopefully they're warm enough inside they forget about the weather."

To recognize Hagarty's role as head of the Olive Garden family in Sioux City and to emphasize the importance the company places on its general managers, Olive Garden honored Hagarty by setting his name in stone. Travertine marble imported from Tuscany was chiseled with Hagarty's name and placed prominently by the front door.

During the past week, the Air Force vet whipped his staff into shape, but without the whips, salutes or any military-style discipline.

"We like to have a good time here," he said. "My biggest thing is to keep my employees happy, make sure they're having a good time. That way, I can make sure my guests are happy and having a good time."

It must be working. One new employee when asked where Mr. Hagarty was, wasn't sure who Mr. Hagerty was until she was told his first name. "Oh, Jason! Sure, just a minute."

The weeklong training sessions benefitted from the presence of Olive Garden trainers -- the "best of the best," Hagarty calls them -- who were flown in from around the country to supervise the training sessions. He is thrilled that Olive Garden takes the time and money to get people trained properly.

"We don't want to open the doors until we're ready," he said. "I don't want you to come in Monday night and not have the service you're supposed to get, and have the food not tasting quite right."

John Quinlan can be reached at (712) 293-4225 or johnquinlan@siouxcityjournal.com

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