Casablanca Brings Middle Eastern Influence to Milwaukee
In 1988, Jesse Musa, a native of Jerusalem who immigrated to the United States in 1971, opened Milwaukee’s first Middle Eastern restaurant, The Sahara Inn, on 7th and Mitchell St on the south side. Three years later, Musa would change the name to what is now one of the most recognized names in Milwaukee dining and nightlife, Casablanca.
Over the years, there have been multiple location changes. There was a stint from 1993-1996 on Oakland Ave. Then Musa brought the restaurant back to the original location in 1996, where they stayed on with a family restaurant theme until Musa’s retirement in 2003.
Casablanca didn’t remain out of the city’s restaurant scene long. In 2005, Musa’s sons Al, Ramzi and Nas, reopened Casablanca at its current location, 728 E Brady St. This iteration of the family business brought back the original concept of a place to be immersed in Middle Eastern culture, with an authentic menu, belly dancers and a new addition, hookah.
Hookah quickly became an extremely popular aspect of the restaurant; though Al says when he first introduced it many people didn’t even know what it was. After some time he found that it became a ritual for some people to come in, eat and then smoke hookah.
This education in Middle Eastern culture that goes along with the dining experience is a point of pride for Al. “It’s always good to be able to educate people on culture and heritage,” he says. “What’s nice about Casablanca is that it’s one of the most diverse establishments in the city. We have people from all different walks of life, ethnicities and religions, and they sit at the bar and talk with one another. A lot of people come in that may not understand the Middle Eastern culture, but they come in and can get a better understanding.”
In 2013 Casablanca underwent a massive renovation project, which was spurred by the popularity they encountered on Brady St. This project included adding a second floor to the restaurant, and building a whole new kitchen. Though this was a giant undertaking, they did it all without closing for even a single day.
“When we first opened on Brady Street we already had a large following in the city,” Al says. “Business went really well, and one of the issues we immediately had was accommodating our guests with the facilities that we had.”
Another key aspect of the restaurant is the lunch buffet, which has been a staple since they opened. This completely vegetarian buffet includes falafel, hummus, salad, baba ghanouj and lentil soup, with items rotate every day to keep it diverse.
Due to the massive renovations, the location of the buffet recently changed from the first to the second floor of the building, and can now accommodate larger groups and allows patrons to enjoy the patio.
Al is now working on a second Casablanca location that he plans on opening by the spring of 2017. Though business is expanding, Casablanca remains a family operation. Jesse Musa is still running the kitchen, along with Al, his brothers and his nephew, who can still be seen there.
“We’ve grown to be a pretty large facility, but it still has that mom and pop feel,” Al says.