Milford’s Benvenuto is not your average Italian restaurant.
Yes, the family-owned eatery embraces the cuisine and ambiance of Tuscany. But it also delivers the unexpected.
“We change what we do all the time,” said owner Lisa Johnson.
In winter, for instance, guests can attend wine dinners featuring high-end Italian wines from different regions. But come summer, the restaurant switches to cocktail events with refreshing tropical themes.
The activities help Benvenuto stand apart.
“We are not just a restaurant,” Johnson maintained. “We want to be a destination. We have people who drive two or three hours to dine. They get something here that they can’t find anywhere else on Delmarva.”
To be extraordinary means starting at the top, she continued. For proof, Benvenuto is hosting master mixologist Brian Van Flandern, from June 28 to July 2, for a series of events, including The Thirsty Games, an “Iron Chef”-style throwdown focused on cocktails.
On Thursday, July 1, the competition — a playful riff on “The Hunger Games” — will occur at Sunset Cove, the Milford event venue that Johnson and husband Walter “Poncho” Johnson also own.
Van Flandern, who is organizing the challenge, is president of Creative Cocktail Consultants, which designs profitable luxury cocktail programs and trains staff in hotels, restaurants and resorts.
The author of five books has appeared on the TV shows “Bar Rescue,” “The Barefoot Contessa,” “Food-ography,” “Property Brothers Forever” and “The Early Show.”
No wonder the Food Network calls him “America’s Top Mixologist.”
To enter the cocktail competition, applicants must write a paragraph detailing their experience and why Van Flandern should select them. They must also attach a photograph of their signature cocktail and describe it. The deadline is Sunday, June 20, and applicants should submit materials to info@benvenuto-restaurant.
On the day of the event, contestants will compete using spirits from Seacrets Distilling Co. in Ocean City, Maryland.
“They have award-winning spirits, and they have done a phenomenal job of building their reputation and creating a destination,” Johnson said.
The finalists, who must think on their feet, will have access to a “grocery store” of items to make a cocktail. At stake is $1,000, a bottle of Seacrets’ spirits and a copy of “Whiskey Cocktails” signed by Van Flandern.
If you’d rather watch than shake and stir, make plans to attend the event. Each person will receive a welcome cocktail created by Van Flandern. Benvenuto executive chef Jesus Giordiany will whip up a Caribbean feast for the tropical-themed venue, and Raymond Charles & the Caribbean Authentics will perform.
Guest also can purchase three cigars for $25, one of which will be hand-rolled by Francisco Almonte of Dominican Big League Cigars.
It’s a good deal, according to Johnson, who sells fine cigars at Benvenuto for $15 and up.
“A lot of our guests like to go out on the back patio by the fireplace, have a brandy or bourbon and cigar,” Johnson explained.
The cost to attend The Thirsty Games is $125 per person and attendance is limited to under 125 guests.
Van Flandern, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and vacationed in Rehoboth, appreciates Benvenuto’s Milford location, Johnson said. The restaurant can cater to the sophisticated diners who are moving to the area in increasing numbers.
“They want things that they were able to get in the cities,” she said.
Those activities include bourbon and tequila dinners with Van Flandern. The $100-per-person dinners at Benvenuto are limited to 25 people each.
Customers also get a story. Benvenuto, which means welcome, was inspired by a family friendship that dates back to 1955 when Johnson’s parents lived in Italy for 11 months. Subsequent generations have continued to visit each other and stay in touch.
Benvenuto opened in early 2020, and Johnson also credits faith for the business’s success, despite the challenging times.
“God owns all of this, and he expects us to do the best of our ability,” she said. “We’re just grateful. We want to be the best we can be so that our guests feel at home.”
For more information about the events, visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.
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