Renovations funded by a city grant will help a West Side sweets shop more closely replicate the experience of the gelato shops in Italy that inspired the owner to get into the dessert business.
The improvements to Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, 5957 W. Chicago Ave., will make way for an expanded dining area, as well as an updated building façade and new windows. The renovations are funded with help from a nearly $250,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, a key part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s campaign to boost investment on the South and West sides.
Owner Layla Bitoy designed her shop to be a treat for the senses, with décor like handblown glass and flavors of gelato meant to invite guests into a whimsical mood to enjoy “sweets and treats and yumminess,” she said.
The upgrades will further improve the shop’s atmosphere to “help connect the community with sight, touch, taste.”
As part of the Chicago Alfresco initiative, Bitoy’s Sweet Treats planned an outdoor seating area in partnership with the Austin Chamber of Commerce to promote foot traffic. But thanks to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, the sweet shop’s lobby will be expanded to create more indoor seating so visitors can gather year-round to enjoy themselves over dessert.
“We’re going to be creating our own inviting space … where our customers can be engaged and still be met with that same whimsical experience,” Bitoy said.
The dessert shop was twice burglarized in recent months, so the renovations will also include measures to improve public safety in the area and make the building more secure, Bitoy said.
She opened Bitoy’s Sweet Treats eight years ago after spending time in Italy. During her travels, she was enamored by the intimate feeling of walking through streets lined with countless small family businesses where people could pop in to get snacks, sweets and treats.
“I wanted to bring that local feel. When you’re out in Italy at the end of the evening, folks go walk out and have their constitutional with their kids and families. They go out to the local gelato shops or delicatessens and have that unique community experience,” she said.
Bitoy noticed in Italy that gelato shops were a local gathering place where people could “create a safe engagement with the community,” she said. She wants her dessert shop to create a similar kind of connection between Austin residents who can bond over her gelato, sorbet, gourmet popcorn or chocolates, she said.
“Those gelato shops weren’t just a quick grab-and-go. They were a sentiment and a staple in the community they serve,” she said. “People connected through that experience. They were sharing ideas and talking about things.”
Bitoy’s menu features a fusion between traditional Italian gelato and “the flair of my culture, and the culture of Chicago and Austin,” she said.
“If you go to Italy, you’re not going to see banana pudding, peach cobbler, red velvet,” she said.
The shop also specializes in gourmet popcorn, including a signature Sweet Cheese Popcorn that combines Chicago-style cheese and caramel flavors “blended into one kernel,” she said. Another bestseller is Bitoy’s Chicago Fire Popcorn, which “has a little bit of heat,” she said.
The eclectic flavors on her menu have made Bitoy’s shop an attraction for people across the city and even from Western suburbs like Oak Park, she said. As her business grows, she hopes to continue drawing more foot traffic to other businesses along Chicago Avenue, she said.
“We do have a following, and we’re able to bridge the gap,” Bitoy said. “We know that we can draw people into Austin with a unique experience. How wonderful would it be if there were other business anchors for them to explore while they’re there.”
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