When Steve Haxhiaj came to New York City from war-torn Kosovo in 1990, he found a home at the Manhattan Italian restaurant Il Monello.
Over the course of a decade, Haxhiaj worked his way up from busboy to owner, but was forced to close the eatery in 2008 when the landlord demanded a six-figure increase of his annual rent.
After 14 years away, Haxhiaj reopened the restaurant in December, reviving the much-adored menu — and his American Dream.
At Il Monello’s new spot on East 49th Street, Haxhiaj and chef Jaime Chabla serve up Northern Italian staples like veal parmigiana that put the restaurant on the map when it was opened in 1974 by Tuscan-born Adi Giovannetti.
At its old location, the restaurant had been awarded three-stars by the New York Times, and was a premier spot for Manhattan’s well-heeled diners craving pasta.
“Since I was 20 years old, the restaurant was pretty much my life, it’s everything to me,” he told The Post. “I came here as a young kid on a tourist visa and I never went back.”
During his first decade working there, Haxhiaj held just about every role at Il Monello. First a busboy, he graduated and became a waiter, and then a maitre’d — and even did stints as bartender and in the kitchen. Haxhiaj’s passion for the place was so clear that Giovannetti made him a manager, even though he lacked the required experience.
And when Giovannetti retired in 2001, he entrusted his beloved restaurant to Haxhiaj.
The decision to close in 2008 was devastating.
“It wasn’t easy for me to walk away from that lease,” Haxhiaj said. “Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
But he never gave up his dream of reopening, no matter how long it took.
Right after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Haijax — who now also owns Tuscany Steakhouse on West 58th Street — found a location in Midtown East for Il Monello.
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” he said.
“You’re going to grab a place, when you just came out of this disaster situation?” they asked him.
Haijax said yes, because he couldn’t say no.
“I strongly believe New York City is coming back,” he said. “If New York City is in trouble, the whole world is.”
He leased the spot on East 49th, made some renovations, and reopened the restaurant in December with Chabla leading the kitchen. Both men wanted to make sure the food felt the same to returning diners — with some fun innovations.
“Steve showed me his old menu. I liked it very much,” Chabla, originally from Ecuador, said, explaining he wanted to keep “what all the customers loved.”
Together, they brought back old staples, like the “Il Monello” salad with arugula and pear and the patron-favorite seafood pasta — while adding new dishes like cacio e pepe and branzino.
Regulars who last walked in the doors more than 14 years ago instantly returned.
“All of the people are coming back,” Haxhiaj said. “There are some faces I haven’t seen in years. When they popped in, I was shocked.”
“We’re so happy to be here,” Hajiax said. “And we’re open seven days a week!”