Check out this year’s Forest Park Community Guide!

Online edition –>

The future of a popular Italian eatery may be in jeopardy thanks to an apparent falling out between the restaurant’s owners that has found its way into civil court.

Robert Marani, a property developer and entrepreneur on Madison Street, is asking a judge to force his head chef and business partner out of the restaurant the two opened in Marani’s building or else sign a lease agreement for the space, according to records filed with the county’s 4th District Circuit Court.

Gaetano DiBenedetto, the defendant named in Marani’s claim, is the head chef at La Piazza, located at 410 Circle Ave. He referred questions regarding the civil case to his attorney, but confirmed he has purchased storefront property at 7636 Madison St. with plans to open his own restaurant.

In 2003, Marani and DiBenedetto opened La Piazza to rave reviews and quickly expanded the business to accommodate more customers. In 2005 La Piazza was renovated to seat some 60 people in a basement jazz lounge just months after additional seating areas were opened on the main floor.

But the pair never had a formal lease agreement, according to Marani’s complaint, and in August the landowner told DiBenedetto that he would be forced out of the business unless he began paying Marani $6,800 a month in rent. Records show Marani is also seeking a $10,000 security deposit tied to the proposed lease.

When asked about the circumstances that preceded the filing, Marani declined to discuss any specifics. In late September Marani served his business partner with a 30 day termination notice that is yet to be enforced.

“I just tried to resolve an issue amicably that was never resolved,” Marani said.

DiBenedetto appears to be on his way out of La Piazza and is scheduled to appear before the zoning board of appeals Dec. 18 regarding the property he recently purchased. Whether his departure will force La Piazza to close is not clear.

“I was hoping it would remain,” Marani said. “Unfortunately, I can’t answer that right now.”

Messages left with DiBenedetto’s attorney were not returned.