An Italian restaurant whose owner has ties to embattled local businessman Tim Durham is poised to take the first-floor
space in Circle Centre mall formerly occupied by Bertolini’s.
The Bella Vita restaurant is “coming soon” to the location, according to signage outside the storefront next to P.F. Chang’s and Champps.
The new restaurant is owned by Indianapolis restaurateur Henri Najem and his wife, Shelley. They've operated a Bella Vita in the area since 1998, the past five years at Geist Marina.
Najem signed a five-year lease for 6,700 square feet at Circle Centre and expects the restaurant to open in early January, pending approval of a liquor license.
He said he's been eyeing downtown for the past two years.
"All the development and the expansion of the [Indiana] Convention Center really drew me down here," he said.
Durham is not involved in the downtown Bella Vita project, but he has partnered with Najem on previous attempts to expand the restaurant.
and Najem had planned to open a Bella Vita in Charlotte, N.C., but construction there stopped late last year after Indianapolis-based
Shiel-Sexton Co. said it wasn't getting paid. The contractor filed a lawsuit in May, saying the partners owed more than
$433,000 for construction work. That lawsuit is pending.
Najem, who said the Charlotte restaurant is about half done, attributed the problems to the bankruptcy of the project's developer. He also said Durham no longer is involved in the partnership.
Najem and Durham had interests in another Bella Vita restaurant as well, opening a moderately priced version of the eatery last year in New Castle. Najem said he exited the partnership about eight months ago after the partners disagreed on the restaurant's direction. The name of the eatery since has been changed to Durhams Ristorante.
Durham has legal problems of his own. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Indianapolis alleges his Ohio-based Fair Finance Co. operated as a Ponzi scheme, using money from new investors to pay what it owed prior investors, thereby “lulling the earlier victims into believing that their money was being [handled] responsibly.”
The Najems, meanwhile, have resolved a lawsuit Muncie-based First Merchants Bank filed in January, saying the restaurant owners had defaulted on a nearly $230,000 loan that was supposed to be paid off in November 2008. The suit sought to foreclose on the Geist restaurant real estate, which served as collateral.
Najem said he didn’t have the money to pay off the note when it came up for renewal. The suit was dismissed in March after the parties reached a settlement in which Najem agreed to pay down some of the principal in return for extending the terms of the loan.
The high-traffic space Bella Vita will occupy in Circle Centre has been empty since Bertolini’s, part of Chicago-based Morton’s Restaurant Group, closed in March 2008.
Steve Delaney, a partner at Indianapolis-based Sitehawk Retail Real Estate, said Bella Vita’s independent status could complement the two nearby chain restaurants. The location attracted interest from at least a few prospects, he said, but has suffered from a lack of visibility from outdoor passersby.
“If they can get the proper signage out on the street,” he said. “it’s a very good location.”