“I couldn't stand it,” he says of retirement. For 40 years, the Brooklyn native born to Italian parents had built a manufacturing empire by being the first to produce the now-ubiquitous $15 halogen torchère lamps. Flitting between offices in Torrance, his massive parts plant in China and travel excursions with the CEOs of companies such as J.C. Penney and Lowe's, Dene was accustomed to operating at warp speed.
“I would look at my phone and say, 'Why isn't anyone calling me?'” he recalls. “I told my wife I needed to do something, so I bought this property on Second Street.”
Originally intended to be a rental property, the narrow two-story storefront on tony Naples Island would take shape as Michael's on Naples Ristorante, inspired by decades of meals Dene, 75, had enjoyed at some of the best restaurants in the world.
“When I was building lamps, it wasn't 'worse for less,' it was 'better for a little bit more,'” he says. “When I started the restaurants, I decided that was going to be my philosophy.”
Chef David Coleman's farm-to-table take on upscale Italian flew under the radar from 2007 until 2013, when Zagat rated Michael's the best Italian restaurant in L.A. — better than Angelini Osteria, Osteria Mozza or Bestia.
The accolades also poured in for Dene's Neapolitan-style pizzeria, which opened its first location in the space adjacent to Michael's in 2010. And the food world took extra notice when Dene announced he was going to raise his own Chianina cattle — the only herd in the United States — for a new Italian steakhouse on the same street.
“I was nuts. I said, 'We're gonna call it Chianina, and I don't know where we're going to get the animals,'” Dene recalls.
While his other restaurants source vegetables from local farms, make their own cheeses and charcuterie in-house and craft the signature red sauce every day from sweet San Marzano tomatoes (which soon will be delivered directly from the Italian grower), Chianina takes Dene's knack for controlling supply chains to the extreme.
One of the oldest breeds in the world, Chianina cows are prized for their lean, muscular meat, which is used in dishes such as bistecca alla fiorentina. Dene tracked down and convinced the one American farmer who owned a few to exclusively breed them on his behalf.
Dene's latest venture, Working Class Kitchen, opened earlier this year on a Long Beach side street lined with design firms and antique malls. It doubles as a butchery and commissary where prep is done for his other restaurants, and it also doles out the country's only Chianina burger ($9) for the daily lunch rush.
“When I was growing up, my mother went to the corner shop and picked the chicken, the guy would slaughter it, and she would take it home and cook it. That's how it was done,” Dene says. “In New York that happens on every corner, but in L.A. it's harder to build those connections. Out here it's a fast-food chemical world. I think bringing it back to what Old World was is possible, and finding a way to again have the food tell the story.”