First Look

A First Look at Joelle | Listen

By: Amber Chase

parmesan is shaved over a bowl of pasta at joelle

Hilton Head is known to get a rise in visitors each summer, but neighboring Bluffton has a new source of intrigue with its latest opening, Joelle. Opening to the public on April 10, Joelle promises to be a community nook overflowing with bright interiors, nostalgic Italian American flavors, and authentic Lowcountry experiences. The restaurant is named after Robert and Breana DeLeo’s one-year-old daughter. Strategizing their restaurant and nursery layouts simultaneously, they decided to dedicate their restaurant to her, hoping that the two would grow together and that the space would truly embody the concept of a family restaurant. “People often ask us what our second restaurant concept might be if we have a boy, and I can’t help but laugh,” says Robert DeLeo. 

The DeLeos moved from New York to Bluffton during the pandemic, seeking a space that was close to family and had that natural Lowcountry charm without an abundance of tourists. Falling for the even-keel community in Bluffton, they knew they wanted to contribute an approachable restaurant that still pushed the envelope for what Bluffton typically offers. Joelle will lean into Italian American dishes that emphasize simple, bold ingredients and highlight regional flavors.  Executive chef Brandon Torre says, “I grew up eagerly anticipating Sunday night dinners with my family. And, if I’m honest, it wasn’t the socialization that sparked my interest, but the food. I was so ready to eat my weight in cannolis.” Torre honors and infuses those same nostalgic flavors into his menu for Joelle, emphasizing quality olive oils, fresh produce, and local partnerships. Joelle will partner with Russo’s Fresh Seafood just down the road and other Lowcountry namesakes like Anson Mills. DeLeo and Torre both correlate the topography of the Carolinas to that of Italy, bringing together the best of both land and sea. “Think of Joelle’s menu as Southern heritage with Italian flair, a simple drawing out of the flavors that are already present in Southern dishes. You’ll find everything from house semolina pasta to quasi shrimp and grits. It’s Southern comfort food that makes a statement,” says Torre. 

A table spread with pizzas, salad, and aperol spritzes joelle

While traditional Italian trattorias might be characterized by dim lighting and squeaky booths, Joelle is a burst of brightness with crisp, white walls and accents of rich jewel tones and exposed brick. In collaboration with Sophia Hill Design for branding, Breana DeLeo envisioned a space that was inviting, elevated, yet functional. Bar booths are draped in a tobacco-colored leather against a tranquil oakmoss green with accent sconces for each table, setting intimate nooks that blend with the restaurant’s overall dining scape. However, the standout piece has to be the imported Fiero Forni pizza oven, covered in custom oakmoss tile, facing guests behind the open bar where the team will shuffle out small plates and still-steaming dishes. Joelle also boasts sliding glass windows for open air dining when the weather permits, and a covered patio with community picnic tables. “For us, to create a community spot, you really need one hundred seats or less for people to truly feel welcomed,” says DeLeo. 

The menu at Joelle lends itself to family-style dining with shareable small plates like tuna crudo, fire-charred octopus skewers, and antipasto for the table. Even the pastas are portioned for sharing. One of the elements that excites chef Torre the most is their handcrafted semolina pasta. “It’s got a totally different mouthfeel than wheat-based pasta, and is something you can’t find around here,” says Torre. Guests can find a semolina gnocchi dressed with spicy tomato olive chutney, pecorino, and balsamic on their small plates menu. Other enticing pastas include a squid ink fettuccine, rigatoni with house made sausage, and wild mushroom ravioli. Torre is equally excited for their pizza program which features dough fermented in-house over several days. “Consider our pizzas to be a hybrid between napoletana and New York-style pizza,” says Torre. Pies will be around 12 inches, and guests should plan on two to three pizzas for around six people. With classics like a Margherita with tomato confit to a bolognese with mortadella, you’ll want to bring a large party just to sample them all. 

Joelle is poised to bring an undeniable liveliness to Bluffton’s community. DeLeo says, “We want Joelle to be a weekly spot for congregating, a neighborhood block party type of feel. I’m giddy thinking of guests sitting on our patio, sipping a negroni, and passing around pizzas. It’s how I want to spend my days, and providing that for my community is invaluable.” 

Opening Menu at Joelle

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