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CHICAGO-Developers and restaurateurs Leon and Sam Toia have a knack for finding the hot areas before the rest of the pack, and setting up one of their Leona’s Pizzerias. Their latest venture, however, is into an area that’s hot enough to bake a thin-crust pizza.

The community development commission recommended approval of a $70,000 break on the purchase price of two city-owned lots in the Bronzeville Tax Increment Financing District. If no alternative proposals are received, Toia Building Properties LP will acquire a long-vacant 6,000-sf building and more than a half-acre at 235-49 E. 31st St. and 301-09 E. 31st St. for $600,000—the city got an appraisal for $670,000. The Toias will renovate the building and provide on-site parking in a $1.5-million project, according to the department of planning and development.

“We’re assuming we can make up the $70,000 very quickly,” says department of planning and development assistant commissioner Cheryl Cooke. Besides failing to pay property taxes, the previous owner also had federal income tax problems, she notes.

The site, which has been vacant for nine years after a pancake house, New Orleans-style restaurant and liquor store failed there, was the Toias’ first choice five years ago. However, the family shifted gears to a 35th Street site before going back to 31st Street, Sam Toia tells GlobeSt.com.

Cooke notes the Toias are “urban pioneers,” investing in west of Halsted Street in the Lakeview neighborhood long before it was fashionable before moving on to East Rogers Park. More recently, Leona’s have opened up on the South Side in the Hyde Park, Ford City and Morgan Park areas. It now has 12 locations in the city, four in the suburbs.

“We feel the Bronzeville neighborhood will be a perfect fit for us,” Toia says. “We love going into neighborhoods early.”

Redevelopment in the area between the Dan Ryan Expressway and Lake Michigan is hardly news. City capital is investment evident in the new police headquarters at 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive augmenting the condominium, townhome and single-family development. However, something has been missing—retail space, especially sit-down restaurants. Between the South Loop and Bronzeville, there is only one moderately-priced sit-down restaurant, Cooke notes.

“That community has needed something for so long,” says 2nd Ward Alderman Madeline Haithcock. “You have a whole community without a restaurant. That’s a shame.”

Haithcock is among city officials and local officials who expect Leona’s to help spur new retail development in an underserved area. “I’m elated. I’m so glad Sam and his partner had a lot of fortitude to stick with this,” Haithcock adds. “Good things come to those who wait.”

Toia also scored points in the community by seeking an African-American woman to serve as project manager for the project. In addition, the restaurant will employ at least 75, most of the workers coming from the neighborhood. And Leona’s will donate at least 5% of its profits back into the community in the form of scholarships, free catering and sponsorship of sports teams.

The proposal got the support of the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology, a major employer along with two hospitals.

Financing is being provided by Marquette National Bank, Cooke says.

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