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Omaha Magazine

Nicole Jesse Builds: Continuing the Legacy on Leavenworth

Aug 27, 2021 04:23PM ● By Tara Spencer
woman in warm lit restaurant

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Italian restaurants are often known for their comfortable, inviting atmospheres. The best places can attribute this familial feeling to the staff and owners. Nicole Jesse, co-owner and general manager of La Casa Pizzaria on Leavenworth Street, embodies that welcoming warmth.

Sitting at a table in the back of the building—a section that was added in 1957—she spoke about the legendary Omaha restaurant known for its unique pizza and iconic neon sign. 

The signature space on Leavenworth Street was originally a house in which Jesse’s grandfather Joe Patane, a carpenter by trade, first opened a fixture business. When Omaha city officials told him he couldn’t operate that business out of a home, he switched gears, opening La Casa, which fittingly means “the house.” 

“I’m not sure, at the time, what the laws were, because he was obviously able to turn around and make it a restaurant,” Jesse said with amusement in her voice. 

While known for its signature pizza, featuring freshly grated Romano cheese and ground beef, La Casa is widely admired for its family-run legacy. Patane and his wife, Nellie, had three daughters—Mary, Rose, and Jesse’s mother, Helen. While she worked for a time as a social worker, Helen eventually became involved in running the restaurant, turning it over to Jesse and her brother, Joel Hahn, in the mid ’80s. Her cousin, Anthony Vacanti—who owns La Casa Pizzaria West Corp.—also owns a part of the Leavenworth restaurant, but Jesse said she and Hahn handle the day-to-day operations.

Like her mother, Jesse didn’t always plan on owning and running the restaurant. She wasn’t passionate about cooking, though she does enjoy it now. However, she has always loved to bake. “A lot of what I learned…I learned from my mom,” she said. 

When she worked at La Casa while in high school and during college, she said, “I was not 100% sure what I wanted to do.”  

Initially, she went into accounting. “Then I got into tax accounting, and said ‘No way. This is not for me,’” she recalled with a laugh. She stayed in the business field, though, receiving her MBA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1989. 

As she was preparing to graduate, her mother was getting ready to retire. “I don’t know for sure if I would have stayed [at the restaurant],” Jesse said. “But when she decided that she wanted to retire and presented us with the opportunity to own the business, I kind of felt like…that was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up.”

Throughout the changing of hands, making and keeping ties within the community has remained a constant. Jesse recalled her mother talking about growing up during the Great Depression and living in Little Italy at the time. 

“People shared things with one another,” Jesse said, adding that her grandfather always had a garden and would freely share his produce. “I think he just had a very giving nature. Coming from Sicily and coming from poverty, I think he understood that there are a lot of people out there that don’t have a lot, and [you do] whatever you can to help.” Jesse said gardening is a passion of hers as well, and while she “dabbles in flowers,” her main focus is produce. 

That spirit of giving also lives on in the family. As a company, La Casa has donated money to several local, state, and national nonprofit organizations, including United Way of the Midlands, Omaha’s Food Bank for the Heartland, and Nebraska Aids Project. They often contribute to local high schools’ fundraising activities, including Jesse’s alma mater Mercy High School.  

“I think the philanthropy part has been something that’s woven into not only our business life, but our personal lives,” Jesse said. “And I know that’s been true for Joel and his family as well.”

Jesse and her husband, John, volunteer their time with Habitat for Humanity. Once again, she is following in her grandfather’s footsteps, in an unintentional homage to his carpentry skills—building homes for those who may not be able to otherwise purchase them. 

Habitat for Humanity Chief Executive Officer Amanda Brewer said the couple has volunteered hundreds of hours over the years helping to build houses. “We are so thankful they choose to come out and take part in this meaningful work,” she said, adding that the two come out every summer to help.

Jesse said they started volunteering for Habitat when they heard about it through their church, Holy Cross Catholic. “We have always felt that…the Omaha community has been very good to us,” Jesse said. “And it’s important to support them as much as possible, in whatever way we can.” 

Besides supporting charitable organizations, Jesse is also known for being supportive of her staff, and LaCasa is recognized for retaining longstanding employees, which can be rare in the hospitality industry. According to Maureen Gibilisco, “Nicole is certainly one of the people who has helped facilitate that sort of sustainable work environment.”

Gibilisco, 28, started as a teenager, making pizzas in the back of the house, and was working as a server and a bartender by the time she left. Having worked at several other restaurants around Omaha, she said some have been lovely and others have been “horrendous.” 

“In terms of individuals to work for, Nicole ranks at the top of my list,” Gibilisco said.

Future generations may also have the chance to work for Jesse. While Omaha does not have mountains or an ocean, it does have its own appeal. “I don’t think people recognize the quality of life we have here,” Jesse said. 

Though she and her husband have talked about what they will do when they retire—“Whenever that’s gonna be.”—Jesse said she doesn’t see them moving away from Omaha. She has basically lived in the Leavenworth neighborhood her entire life. “My sister lives in the house that we grew up in,” she added. This is where her roots are. “I don’t think I would ever live anyplace else.”

Visit lacasapizzaria.net for more information.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann