Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Mad BeneRestaurant Insider
July 9, 2023
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: MARK GALACGAC
ANNE LEE speaks with Mad Bene owners JIN HONG AND HENRY YOON
Those from the East Coast know the word “mad” is commonly used to describe something that is “very” or “extreme” — and not in a negative way. The term “bene” in Italian means good or well. Put them together and Mad Bene is just that — a very good Italian-American restaurant in Kapolei Commons.
The concept was created by Jin Hong and Henry Yoon, brothers-inlaw-turned-business-partners who also refined the Korean street food craze at their first restaurant, Café Duck Butt, in Kakaako.
Yoon, a Harvard graduate originally from New York, supported Hong, who grew up in Honolulu, in his desire to become a restaurateur, but had one condition: Hong would have to get his Master of Business Administration during the process.
The duo currently operate four restaurants with more to come. I met with them at Mad Bene to try a few of their menu items that represent New York-style Italian fare with a Hawaii twist.
AL: Jin, how did you get into the restaurant industry?
JH: In high school and through college I worked as a waiter in various restaurants and fell in love with the industry. In 2010, we had the opportunity to take over a popular restaurant, Café Duck Butt. My friends and family were frequent supporters of this restaurant, and I knew with my experience I could grow the concept and make it even better.
The wave of K-pop and K-dramas were not that popular yet, let alone BTS. I wanted to change out the decor and refine the menu. That is when Henry moved here from NewYork to support me in this venture. I did see a lot of people come from all areas of the island, so due to popular demand, we opened our second location, DB Grill, in 2017 for our West Oahu supporters. We then opened Mad Bene with our previous chef Bao Tran, formerly a chef de cuisine at Santina, part of Major Food Group in New York.
AL: Henry, why did you want to get into the restaurant industry?
HY: I saw the skill set in my brother-in-law and I saw how well he takes care of the things he owns. I knew with his experience in this industry and tenacity, we would be able to bring great food to the local audience, but with the condition that he get his Master of Business Administration. I didn’t want him to think that this was a handout. He would close the restaurant at 2:30 a.m., then show up at my house at 10 a.m. to study for a couple of hours, then go back and open up the restaurant and do it all over again. I wanted him to be able to understand what it meant to own something; it’s a reflection of the individual and to hold him accountable. He really worked hard to get to where he is today. Even though we are family, we work well as a team. We both have our strengths, and our demographic is vast. Sometimes we do have disagreements, but that’s when we come together and get the best outcome. Working on Wall Street doesn’t teach you loyalty, the restaurant industry in Hawaii does.
AL: Why did you want to open an Italian restaurant?
JH:We had the opportunity to look at this space, that was adjacent to DB Grill. Henry, being from New York, wanted to have a good Italian restaurant, and there were not that many to choose from. If we were going to do it, we had to it right. We took steps to make sure we were able to deliver an authentic Italian meal to the local community, from the way we make our pasta to the pizza dough — the authentic taste was something we wanted to create. The response from our guests has been great. We have customers that drive from the North Shore to dine with us.
AL: What did you prepare for us to try today?
JH: These dishes are our best sellers — all of our mozzarella is made in-house, as well as our pasta. As our saying goes, if it’s not made in-house, it’s not Mad Bene.
We wanted to start off with an Italian staple: Pappardelle Bolognese ($20), which features 12-hour ragu and pasta made in-house. Henry’s favorite is the Chicken Parm ($23, add spaghetti and tomato for $9). Our Kona Kampachi (market price) is sustainably raised off the coast of Kona at the world’s first unanchored net-pen fishery. It’s pan-roasted and topped with oreganata, Sicilian olive oil, garlic, oregano and Italian parsley. We also have the Mango Mozzarella ($21).
From our pizza oven, the NYC Pizza ($19) is our tribute to the Big Apple, topped with Ezzo Pepperoni with hand-stretched and made-inhouse dough, and baked to perfection in our Forza Forni oven, which is one of the best pizza ovens in the world. The size was bigger than the entry way, so we had it taken apart and put back together in our kitchen. That’s how important this was. Last but not least, a glass of Lambrusco, Cleto Chiarli, Emilio Romagna is $12.
AL: Anything else you want to share?
JH: We are thankful for the community’s support in our restaurants. Without them, we would not be able to expand and grow our brand. We are fortunate for our staff; we treat everyone like family, sometimes you spend more time with your coworkers than your own family. One of my staffers thanked me for hiring her, as she was able to finally look at her children’s faces and tell them that they were going to Disneyland. That comment has motivated me to do better. This business is not just about money, it’s about taking care of the people in our community. Our industry employs a lot of students, and they have lots of expenses versus income, so we always make sure they have a meal. We purposely close at 3 p.m. and reopen at 5 p.m. every day to reset the kitchen and so the entire team has a family meal.
For those that can’t make it out to Kapolei, we have a pizzeria at Ward Warehouse called Pizza Dadi, an extension of Mad Bene’s pizza, salad and few appetizers. And, coming soon, a new restaurant concept is opening in the Ward area.