A new West Garfield Park eatery, located at 2858 W. Madison St., opened on April 1 with a bang and a serious mission. Owner Joseph Black said that he hopes his new restaurant, called LiFE, improves the collective health of West Side residents and encourages them to treat each other better.

In the summer months, Black said, a vacant lot next to the restaurant will be open for yoga, Zumba and boxing classes. The North Lawndale native said that he ultimately wants his establishment to anchor a small renaissance of local economic growth that would entail refurbishing vacant buildings and creating job opportunities for area residents.

Black, a North Lawndale native who graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2006 with a degree in mass media and communications, is a serial entrepreneur who has launched a range of businesses, including film and landscaping companies.

He said that he got into the restaurant business because he didn’t like the hard reality he confronted when he’d drive around his neighborhood looking for healthy food.

“I got tired of driving around looking for something healthy, or at least something healthier than average, to eat,” he said. “So, I decided to open my own place.”

The current menu includes salads, tacos, sandwiches, seafood dishes, meat and vegetable bowls, smoothies, wraps and loaded potato meals. It also features vegetarian options. Black mentioned that he deliberately avoided fast food staples such as jerk chicken or wings, because he didn’t want to undercut local fast-food stands.

Many of LiFE’s menu offerings are named after community leaders and other inspiration figures. The turkey burger is named after 28th Ward Alderman Jason Ervin. One of the smoothies is named Akkeem, the middle name of Black’s father, Reginald, a former gang member who served nearly 20 years in prison for murder before becoming a respected community activist.

Black said that leaving the ‘I’ lower-case in the eatery’s name is a design detail that carries with it a deliberate message. He wants to emphasize the pronoun in order to encourage customers to take responsibility for their choices and actions.

“Too often, we blame anyone, but we don’t blame ourselves” he said.

The lowercase ‘I’ might also emphasize respect for each person’s individual humanity, which he alluded to when referencing his restaurant’s design.

“You see there’s no bulletproof glass here,” Black said of the eatery’s open layout. “We are not animals, we’re people. We don’t need to be served through a cage.”

“This is nice, very nice, and clean,” said Ervin after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This is something different. Healthy food is good for the neighborhood.”

Michael Cohen, who mentored Black through a United Airlines youth mentoring program, said that he thought LiFE would benefit the community.

“I think it’s a great place to open, because it’s obviously a poor, poor area,” he said. “[LiFE] is going to help kids who might not get a job anywhere else.”

In addition to serving food, Black said, the restaurant will serve up opportunities with programs like the ambitious “I got a $5 on it” initiative.

“If we can get one million people to donate $5 once a month, we’re going to get $60 million [a year],” Black said. “We invest it in small business projects. We can open 5,000 business in United States, and we can hire three people. “

Black also said that he wants to raise money to improve abandoned buildings.

“We’re going to have a party where we’re going to raise money to buy buildings in the community,” he said. “And we’re going to hire each other to fix them.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...