Restaurateur Bob Longhi, who lived a life that included a drive to Hana with the Beatles' George Harrison, owning a piece of a professional basketball team and fulfilling a lifelong dream of running a restaurant, died Monday afternoon.
The founder and owner of the iconic Front Street establishment Longhi's suffered a heart attack early Friday morning, his son, Peter Longhi, said Monday afternoon. He was taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center, where he died early Monday afternoon.
Bob Longhi was 79.
"He was a larger than life personality," his daughter, Gabrielle Longhi, said late Monday afternoon in a conference call with siblings Peter and Carol O'Leary. "He loved Maui. He loved eating. That was his biggest pleasure in life. Opening a restaurant was his dream, and he did it."
Bob Longhi was an insurance agent in New York City in March 1976 when he brought his employees to Maui for a one-week vacation, he wrote in his cookbook "Longhi's: Recipes and Reflections from Maui's Most Opinionated Restaurateur" published in 1998.
The second night the group was on Maui he walked into Captain Jack's Family Restaurant at 888 Front St. He asked the owner if he knew of any places for sale. The owner replied: "Yes, this building, I've been in Chapter 11 for two years."
He bought the restaurant and stopped doing insurance. Longhi's Cafe opened in December 1976. He would later shorten the name to Longhi's.
Never referring to himself as a chef, only as a "good cook," said Carol, Bob Longhi had been preparing for his restaurant days for years. In 1956, he got his first taste in food sales when he and his first wife, Sally, made submarine sandwiches and sold them to fraternities at his alma mater Cornell University.
At that time in his life, he did not fancy himself a food connoisseur. That was until Sally gave him a copy of "The Gourmet Cookbook" as a Christmas present.
"This book awakened something inside me that inspired the inner chef in me," he wrote. "From that moment on, I became a cooking fool."
He would introduce and hone his palate in the epicurean delights of the top restaurants in New York City and in Europe. Those experiences laid the foundation for Longhi's success.
When it came to Longhi's, he created all the recipes himself, such as Italian specialties linguine with clams, Lobster Longhi and tiramisu.
"He really knew his stuff . . . what tasted good," said Gabrielle.
"He had a great palate," she said. "He had a way to make it taste good."
Bob Longhi wanted his restaurant to offer more than tasty food.
"Longhi's is a place where a customer will have not only a delicious meal and great service - but even more important - a wonderful time," he wrote in his cookbook.
An aspect of that "wonder-ful time" were the verbal menus. Waiters and waitresses introduce the dishes to customers, offering tips and suggestions.
"He wanted a connection" between the servers and the customers, said Gabrielle. "And he wanted his servers to guide you through the meals and give you the best stuff of the day."
That was a formula that worked and allowed Longhi's to survive the cyclical nature of the economy that often eats alive weaker restaurants during the downturns. His establishment was reportedly one of the top 10 highest grossing restaurants in the nation.
In subsequent years, he also opened Longhi's Wailea and Longhi's Ala Moana on Oahu next to Neiman Marcus.
Along the way, he had some legendary experiences. He drove Harrison to Hana for the first time. The member of the Beatles was so taken with Hana during that trip he wrote the song "Soft-Hearted Hana" and bought a home there, said Peter.
Celebrities would frequent Longhi's from wine maker Robert Mondavi to Hall of Fame basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Bob Longhi also was part-owner of the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors. An avid sports fan, he'd say that the good draft picks were his picks, said Peter.
"Bob is one of a kind who will be sorely missed," said Shep Gordon, a fellow Maui restaurateur and a partner in Mala Wailea. "There will never be another Bob Longhi.
"I don't think we ever thought of ourselves as competitors . . . but fellow travelers along the way."
Bob Longhi's special charm was that he could "speak to everyone" from the busboy to all the customers who walked in, said Peter.
"Everybody loved him," he said. "He didn't play favorites with people. He loved people for who they were."
And unlike some iconic businesses that die with the founder, Longhi's will live on. Bob Longhi made sure of that. Peter is the vice president and general manager of Longhi's Lahaina. His other son, Charlie Longhi, is in charge of the Oahu operations. And all the children have worked in the restaurant business at one time or another.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Bob Longhi is survived by his children Peter, Gabrielle, Charlie and Genafer Longhi and Carol O'Leary; first wife, Sally, and second wife, Gail Longhi; and six grandchildren.
* Dining Editor Carla Tracy contributed to this report. Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.