leilani’s on the beach: multi-million dollar renovation pays off

Last May, Leilani’s on the Beach at Whalers Village in Ka‘anapali unveiled its new look, after a six-month, multi-million dollar renovation. A mainstay on world-famous Ka‘anapali Beach since the early ‘80s, Leilani’s has racked up award after award, including Most Booked and Best Seafood on OpenTable; Best Moderately Priced Restaurant by Hawai‘i magazine; and the coveted TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence. The large-scale remodeling included work on the main dining room, and an extension of the lanai for more ocean-view seating.

“The goal of our renovation was to honor the Leilani’s of yesterday, today, and tomorrow by incorporating traditional design with modern comfort,” says General Manager Jason Donez. “Guests will continue to enjoy the same great views and friendly hospitality for which we’ve been known since our opening in 1982.”

Leilani’s is part of the T S Restaurants group founded by Rob Thibaut (the “T”), and Sandy Saxten (the “S), which owns and operates 13 dining establishments in California and Hawai‘i. The company’s mission is: To create timeless memories and lifelong friendships, with sunsets and aloha.” Leilani’s (“heavenly lei” in Hawaiian) was named after one of the founder’s daughters, and their goal is “to make every guest feel like she took a lei from her shoulders, and gently placed it over yours.”

Ocean-front, open-air dining doesn’t get much better than at Leilani’s, which is situated smack-dab on the Ka‘anapali Beachwalk. And its new look nicely complements the drop-dead gorgeous sea views, with the neighboring island of Lana‘i looming in the background. This is exactly what visitors to Hawai‘i come to experience. One of the main design elements is a new teak tile wall depicting the West Maui Mountains. The project also incorporated seven original Pegge Hopper paintings that have been a part of the restaurant since its opening. Custom lighting by local artist Mark Chai, refinished koa tables, the addition and re-use of aʻa lava rock, and new roofing, are other features.

But perhaps most noticeable is the network of sparkling glass railings framing the upper-level dining room, which allow for unobstructed views. In addition, an elevated center section leads to an extra birds’ eye perspective of the expansive scenery.

Floor Manager Steve Iwankiw, who has been with Leilani’s for nine years, is thrilled with the restaurant’s new look and feel. “We were due for a more modern look,” he says. “And, after being closed for eight months, we’re very fortunate our chef team returned.” Indeed, Executive Chef Ryan Luckey and Dining Room Chef Steven Crosier embraced the restaurant’s new beginning by rolling out a refreshed and inspired menu centered on locally sourced ingredients from Maui and the Pacific. Case in point: fresh produce is sourced from more than 40 family farms on Maui, and all fish served is caught in Hawaiian waters. They also utilize socially conscious, all-natural chicken and Compart Family farms duroc pork products.

My companion this evening is my husband Charles, who is also the designated driver. For before-dinner beverages, Charles has opted for a Tropical Smoothie ($7), a luscious blend of passionfruit, mango, and pineapple, blended with a strawberry swirl; while I’ve chosen something a bit more potent: The Lime in the Coconut (coconut vodka, fresh-squeezed lime, fresh pineapple, and coconut water—$12). Why not take advantage of having a chauffeur?

To go with our drinks, we’ve ordered from veteran Leilani’s server Brooke the Sashimi ($19), composed of shiny, ruby-red chunks of meaty, fresh-caught ‘ahi lying atop a crunchy shiso-daikon salad, accompanied by highly addictive sesame edamame dressed with citrus ponzu. When Steve stops by he comments, “I’m so spoiled by the quality of our tuna it’s hard for me to order it any place else.” Charles and I soon see why. The ‘ahi tastes as though the fisherman brought it to Leilani’s minutes before it ended up in front of us.

Our next course is the Maui Fresh salad ($11.50), which is the most visually appealing salad we’ve seen in a long time. And it tastes even better than it looks. Uber-fresh Upcountry greens glisten with just the right amount of white balsamic vinaigrette so as not to overpower. Heaped on top of the greens are layers of other tasty ingredients: Kumu Farms shaved fennel, organic Maui beets, and Surfing Goat Cheese. Local cherry tomatoes and toasted macadamia nuts round out what Charles declares to be a five-star salad, which provides a new discovery with every bite.

While Charles and I enjoy our salad, we spy a ginormous masterpiece being delivered to the table next to us. It’s the Chilled Seafood Platter ($49), a stunning presentation of Tristan lobster tail, shrimp, Alaskan king crab legs, shoyu ‘ahi poke, blue point oysters, and Washington black mussels, served with ginger-yuzu cocktail sauce, Tabasco, and fresh lemon. Wowza! What a seafood feast! And it’s obviously phenomenal, based on the smiles on the diners’ faces and the lively commentary it inspires.

For entrees, Charles and I have ordered the Parmesan Crusted fresh catch (mahi mahi tonight—$34) and the Double R Signature Ranch® Prime Rib ($36). Brooke asked the kitchen to split both dishes for easier “cross-tasting.” The succulent mahi mahi is coated with a nicely charred crumb crust, served over a bed of creamy mashed potatoes, and bathed in a tangy lemon-caper reduction. Sautéed carrots and green beans provide color and texture. The generously portioned 14 oz. prime rib is a perfect medium-rare, and very tasty, having been rubbed with Hawaiian sea salt prior to roasting. It’s also served with sides of mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables, along with spicy horseradish sauce.

Manager Steve stops by again, and shares with us that a portion of the proceeds from Leilani’s goes to support the Lahainaluna High School culinary arts program. In addition, Steve says Chef Ryan regularly visits the school to teach classes to develop students’ culinary techniques such as knife skills. It’s all part of T S Restaurants’ “Legacy of Aloha” program, which takes on many forms and faces, but is grounded in the spirit of giving without an expectation of receiving anything in return. “Impacting our local communities in a lasting, positive way is at the core of the T S philosophy and value system,” the company’s website states.

Time for dessert! Although Charles has the sweetest tooth of the two of us, I’m a sucker for a good bread pudding. Leilani’s take on the classic is an Apple Banana Bread Pudding ($9.50), made with Hawaiian sweet bread and chocolate chips, and served with vanilla bean ice cream, the latter being Charles’s absolute favorite. My friends, there are bread puddings, and then there’s this bread pudding. Its creamy texture is the stuff dreams are made of, and causes both of us to roll our eyes heavenward. When I set down my spoon to take a break, the next thing I know Charles is using both spoons! What a glutton!

As we make our way back to our Upcountry home, Charles and I feel as though we’ve truly been on vacation, if only for just one evening. Lucky we live Maui.

–heidi pool

AT A GLANCE…

WHAT •

Leilani’s on the Beach, featuring long-line caught fresh fish delivered daily,
and all-natural cuts of meat prepared island style, served with a genuine sense of aloha.

WHERE •

Smack-dab on Ka‘anapali Beach in the Whalers Village shopping center. Validated parking available.

WHEN •

Dinner is served daily from 4:45 to 9:30pm. Leilani’s beachside grill is open from 11am to 10:30pm.

HOW •

Reservations recommended: 661-4495; leilanis.com; opentable.com.

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