Step off the ferry onto an island with pristine sandy beaches, cliffside bed-and-breakfasts, and a destination-worthy wood-fired pizza oven. This isn’t a place on the Italian Riviera. It’s a small, 740-acre island called Peaks Island, part of the city of Portland, Maine.
That’s where Ben Wexler-Waite ’14 opened his first restaurant, Il Leone, out of an airstream at the Peaks Island Lions Club—in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was just a vacant wooded lot,” he said. “But I saw in it the potential to build something that was Covid-resilient, but also build something where I could provide a real culinary experience for people on the island.”
Wexler-Waite spent hours turning a scraggly strand of trees and overgrown weeds into a beautiful setting for relaxed open-air dining. The restaurant is tucked back from the island road, with the sound of the ocean audible above the hum of happy diners. “I really had to think outside the box, but I knew there was something really special about that 100-percent outdoor, wood-fired island dining experience,” he said.
After a successful first year, Il Leone is open for season two.
Wexler-Waite named the restaurant after the folks who gave him a chance—“Il Leone” translates to “The Lion” in Italian. “Without the Lion’s Club, I wouldn’t exist,” he said. “I really want the restaurant to feel like part of the island community. We’re doing an Italian twist on this Maine island, using Maine ingredients.”
Wexler-Waite isn’t a seasoned restaurateur. After graduating from Colby with a degree in government, he spent years working in communications roles for several political campaigns, including the campaigns of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Brad Holyman, a state senator from New York, as well as for a Democratic super PAC.
“Working for a political campaign is actually really similar to working in a restaurant,” laughed Wexler-Waite. “You’re working under pressure, 24/7, in this go-go-go environment.”
But his passion for food kept calling him back, with stints at organic farms, food trucks, and a food startup in between campaigns. “I loved working in politics, but I always had this dream of starting my own food business someday,” he said. “I’ve always had a passion for food, and when I moved to Peaks Island, I started having all of these conversations until finding this place at the Lion’s Club, and I knew it was the place for me.”
Despite being part of the city of Portland, Peaks Island doesn’t have many food options for visitors or residents—and no farmland. “The island is such a cool place to live, but I very quickly realized that there was a dire need for more food options here. It’s not an exaggeration to call it a food desert, despite being part of one of the best food cities in New England.”
Wexler-Waite hopes to use the restaurant as a way to remake the food landscape of the island, which currently only has a few dining options and a small grocery store. In addition to offering pizza, he also operates a weekly farm stand using the same coastal farms that supply his ingredients, sometimes with lines all the way down the road.
When many diners think of farm-to-table, they’re picturing perfectly arranged plates on white tablecloths, not pizza. Wexler-Waite wanted to do something accessible and delicious, combining his love of Italian food, first sparked by a semester abroad, with real Maine ingredients.
Said Wexler-Waite, “Pizza is the perfect vehicle to support local farmers, especially Neapolitan-style pizza, because the emphasis is on the simplicity and quality of the ingredients, and it’s a food everyone loves.”
All winter, he experimented with new menu items and played with ingredients, recreating some of his favorite dishes from his time spent in Tuscany. He plans to add a few new menu items and rotate them seasonally, like a springtime asparagus pizza with lemon, garlic, pecorino, and black pepper.
“I love to think of traditional Italian flavor combinations as the basis for my pizza, coupled with what’s available from local farms in the area,” said Wexler-Waite. “When I was studying abroad in Italy, I had this incredible pasta dish with asparagus, and I wanted to bring that to this season’s menu.”
His signature dish? The “Aragosta,” a mouthwatering lobster pizza with just the right amount of sweetness. But you won’t go wrong with a classic margherita topped with fior di latte mozzarella on a shatteringly perfect sourdough crust.
What started as a seasonal idea that Wexler-Waite “just hoped would make it through” has become a thriving destination restaurant, even in a big restaurant town like Portland. “There were times when we had waits of up to two hours,” he said. “The feedback from islanders and visitors alike was overwhelmingly positive, and we’re really excited to have another go this year.”
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