Watch our exclusive interview with Jeff Gigante below.
Growing up in an Italian-American household, Jeff Gigante’s childhood memories centered around the dining table, where he shared meals with friends and family and forged unforgettable moments. These cherished recollections, like watching his grandmother peel garlic, sauté tomatoes or making homemade pasta, played a pivotal role in the formation of his hospitality group, Next Level Brands.
“Every meeting, every discussion, every happiness, every sorrow was all around the kitchen table,” Gigante says. “It was just our language of love and how we talked.”
While food held a significant role in his youth, Gigante initially drew inspiration from his mother’s PR work for a dinner theatre and pursued an acting education. However, it was during his senior year at Florida State University when he and a friend opened a pizzeria that his life took a transformative turn.
“To actually come up with an idea, create something, and then bring it to fruition and have that idea become not yours anymore, but your guests and the community,” he says, “I never had an experience like that.”
“Even though that first restaurant ended up being a failure, it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me because my entire life, whenever I’ve tried things and have struggled with them, I double and triple down to become an expert at those things.”
After a stint in New York City, Gigante realized his true passion was in hospitality. Over time, he honed his skills and returned to Florida, co-founding a restaurant group in 1996. While this venture garnered over two decades of success, it started to deviate from his original vision. Consequently, he sold his share of the business and went on to establish Next Level Brands with the launch of Forbici Modern Italian in Hyde Park.
“I wanted to go back to my roots of that comfort feeling that I grew up around the table and that’s what Forbici was,” he says.
Concept creation was where Gigante’s heart was, but to make the dream grow, he didn’t want to do it alone.
Joseph “Joe” Guggino attended FSU at the same time as Gigante, but their paths wouldn’t cross until years later when Guggino was a practicing lawyer and began investing in commercial real estate. Their acquaintance was established when Gigante was scouting for property along Howard Avenue for his former hospitality group, and from there, a friendship blossomed.
Upon learning of Gigante’s plans to venture out on his own and open an Italian restaurant in Hyde Park, Guggino, a food enthusiast and wine collector, decided to become more than a passive investor. He immersed himself in the process, creating the wine list and contributing to finalizing the proposed menu. Together, they founded Next Level Brands, driven by the mission to elevate the culinary landscape of their respective hometowns—Gigante growing up in St. Petersburg and Guggino, Tampa.
“Jeff is a tremendous and inspirational leader,” Guggino says. “We’re assembling a great team of people and with a great team of people you can you can do a lot.”
While it’s a collective effort, Gigante leads in concept development and Guggino spearheads the menu creation. Yet, they were missing a crucial component: Andrew Wright, founder of Franklin Street, Managing Partner of Ally Capital Group and missing piece of the Next Level Brand puzzle. Wright was brought on board to oversee the financial and strategic aspects of the company.
With his insights, the hospitality business flourished. Presently, Next Level Brands has introduced three restaurant concepts: Forbici, Union New American, which focuses on eclectic, modern American cuisine, and Boulon Brasserie, which offers a sophisticated French dining experience.
“I think so highly of Jeff Gigante and who he is as a person, his ability, his passion for what he does,” Wright says. “But I really wanted to help and I could and the more I got involved, the more I loved it and enjoyed it.”
“[Being] part of a hospitality company that’s opening up exciting concepts, changing the landscape of the city and doing it in the right way and familial way with good people and professionally,” Wright adds, “I mean, yeah, what’s better than that?”
With three establishments in operation and a second Forbici underway in St. Petersburg, Next Level Brands is brimming with creative ideas. From high-end Mexican to a spacious waterfront restaurant, with Gigante, Guggino and Wright at the helm, the future of Tampa Bay’s culinary scene promises to be, well, delicious.
“There’s no shortage of ideas,” Gigante says. “As Tampa evolves and becomes this amazing draw to the country, it brings that much more diversity to our population, which gives us all the more fuel to keep creating unique, amazing concepts that are missing here.”