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Global Travel and the 'Simple Bar' with Award Winning Bar Entrepreneur, Lorenzo Antinori

Global Travel and the 'Simple Bar' with Award Winning Bar Entrepreneur, Lorenzo Antinori

On Humble Beginnings 

I was born in Rome to a pretty normal family with no connections to the food and beverage or hospitality industries. Initially, I pursued a law degree but soon realised that it wasn't for me. In 2008, I left Italy for the first time and spent a year backpacking around Australia. Over that year, I worked in various bars and Italian restaurants. It's funny because many people actually thought that I was an Australian making up the Italian accent. It was all very unplanned but one of the best times in my life. It's here where I fell in love with hospitality.

Eventually, I went back to Italy and got a job at a café in Rome. Around that time, famous bartenders were gaining popularity on YouTube, and I noticed that most of the world's top bars were located in London, New York, and Tokyo. I wanted to be involved, so I chose London—the closest destination to Italy—and a place where I didn't need a visa to enter. I moved there a week later armed with one small suitcase.

On Getting into the Industry

Before my trip, I randomly met a famous bartender named Salvatore Calabrese who gave me a list of bars to visit in London. He didn't give me any formal introductions, but when I got to London, I went to all the bars on his list and told the bar managers that I was recommended by him. Eventually, I landed a job in the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel. I went there as a customer dressed up like a five-star hotel manager with a cheap suit.  One of those gangster suits with stripes, just horrible. I also carried a briefcase with nothing in it just to look extra serious hoping that the bar manager would notice me. Eventually, they gave me a job as a bar back.

The Savoy was a very strict place. You had to arrive on time—for every minute late, a pound was deducted from your tips. Shaving was compulsory and our uniforms had to be impeccable. The discipline was tough at first, but I worked hard and had the opportunity to move from the back bar to waiter. I remember my first week as a waiter—I literally dumped a full tray of Bellinis on this bride and her poor bridesmaids.

I took the job very seriously and perfected my craft and eventually learned what it really meant to work in hospitality; it was not just about making cocktails; it was about hosting, serving, and entertaining people. It was a very important time for me in my career.

On Moving East

A head-hunter approached me in London and offered me a job with The Four Seasons in Seoul. At the time, I didn't even know where Korea was on the map—I only knew that Korea kicked Italy out of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006—but other than that, I honestly had to Google it! I took the job and moved to Seoul...this time with two pieces of luggage.

I’ll never forget that trip from the airport to the hotel; I felt like I was in a different universe.  Seoul is such an incredibly modern city, but one that has only became modern recently.  At the time, the outskirts of Seoul were still countryside, villages, flat land, no English signs - I freaked out a bit wondering what I had got myself into. And then suddenly I arrived in Seoul proper and saw all these skyscrapers and this hyper fast city. It was all a bit shocking for me. 

Four Seasons Seoul had just opened and I was the only westerner working the front of house.  It was the first time I was entirely responsible for a bar team and I had the real opportunity to leave my own footprint on a place.  If I could go back in time though, I would live those years in a different way.  I would be more curious and adventurous rather than spending all my time in the hotel working.

After spending two years in Seoul, I decided to make another move and transferred within Four Seasons to Hong Kong. There, I took charge of running Caprice Bar at the Michelin-starred Caprice restaurant. At the time, Four Seasons was going through a big renovation and they put me in charge of opening a new concept which would eventually become Argo*.

*Under Lorenzo, Argo at the Four Seasons Hong Kong debuted at number 3 on Asia’s 50 best bars list, and 28 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, 2022.

On Building a Narrative Around your Work

You shouldn't be shy to share what you do and to share your ideas. Showcase your personality and put yourself out there as a thoughtful leader in the industry. That's why you do it in the first place, right? These days, however, I am so occupied with so many other responsibilities that I have little time to truly comprehend who I've become now as a business owner, a bartender and an entrepreneur.

On Bar Leone and the 'Simple Bar'

I could've stayed with Four Seasons and opened another five bars around the world and gotten paid very well. But I think with COVID something changed in me—I got tired of this idea of always needing to achieve something for somebody else. So with some business partners we starting talking about opening something new, which eventually became Bar Leone.

Bar Leone is a neighbourhood cocktail bar that pretty much distils things that people love: community, conviviality, food and drinks. In the bar world everybody is focusing on innovation—how can we push boundaries? How can we be different? For me though, I want to wowed by simple things done very well.  At Bar Leone I wanted to buck the trends a bit and do something that was the total opposite, something more normal, but within that normality was something different, approachable, purposeful and fun. 

Yesterday we had a well-known guest bartender from New York. I was nervous because it's the first time we had such a big name.  He gave us one of the best compliments that I have probably ever received; he told me 'dude I just don't want to leave this bar—I just want to stay here and drink all night long.

On Simplicity and Sustainability

Sometimes I find it amusing when bars talk about sustainability while they work with all these exotic techniques and ingredients. At Bar Leone, we take a more sustainable approach by using minimal ingredients that produce very little waste—we don't really make anything from scratch except for some juices. We reduce our footprint and our costs by just working with ingredients that are easy to source.

Staff don't need to prepare an extensive prep menu, which also means far fewer mistakes. We have spirits, liquor, ice, and a scale—no complicated cooking is involved. So if you mess it up it's because you didn't use the scale properly or misread the number. This gives me a lot of confidence that we are consistently putting out great drinks because there is far less margin for error.

On Work and Travel

In our industry, there's a need and curiosity to connect with people and to learn from other professionals. If you come across someone you admire, it's only natural to invite them out to do a gues shift at your bar. I remember the first time I got such a call and was offered a trip to Greece. Here I am, a bartender based in London, and I get a free flight to Athens. I didn't care about the money but just enjoyed the experience. When you arrive you do a seminar, host a guest shift at the bar, but afterwards your hosts look after you and take you out to dinner and show you the spots; It’s a very cool way to travel.

In recent years bartenders traveling has become huge and there is important value in it. The world is smaller; the bar scene is bigger; awards have more weight. Everyone wants to build with each other to create more exposure for their own brands—it’s a way to amplify your own brand but also connect with faraway places and future consumers. This month I am going to Bangkok, Singapore, Mexico City on super short trips, 2-4 days each. Next year I already have India, Jakarta and Korea lined up—it’s a great way to meet new people, learn new practices and raise awareness.

The travels that I've had have really underscored much my career path.  A lot of the growth in my career was directly related to time spent abroad, and a lot of my travels were directly related to my work.  The two are inseparable. I've always been very curious, adventurous and excited about seeing new places and meeting new people. I’ve never feared jumping into new things.

On Packing and Travel Essentials

It's funny because I lose shit all the time, so for me it’s important to prepare well in advance of any travel. I need a full week, no joke. I need to know the exact piece of luggage or backpack that I'm bringing, and I need to organise every element that I'm bringing with me in a very neat way. Everything must be organised or I’ll forget things. I’m like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

As for outfits, this is usually driven by my mood or the occasion—for example if I'm going to Mexico City, I know it's going to be very hot—or if I know I'm meeting the GM of Shangri-La, I’ll pack and dress accordingly.

Whenever I land though I always try to run either inside the hotel gym or outside, so I always bring a pair of running shoes.  I also always carry a sleeping mask because I don’t sleep well, and a notepad which I use to jot down new ideas for the menu and to take notes of things that I see.  Of course I bring my mobile phone and I always carry two or three portable chargers.  There is nothing worse than being stuck somewhere without being able call an Uber or take a photo especially on these quick trips where you are constantly rushing from airport to hotel to venue.

On Travelling Well

I want to travel in comfort, but at the same time I leave a lot of things to the unknown, to improvisation.  To me it's about blending together comforting elements such as a business class flight or a new bag piece of luggage— with the unexpected.  For me, there needs to be an element of discomfort to really enjoy the improv.

Favourite place to stay? It's Rome. My home in Rome.

Favourite hotel? Four Seasons Kyoto. You really enter totally different universe—a beautiful place.

Best airport to eat or drink in? Atlanta Airport has the best airport food I've ever had, at this place called One Flew South. One of best.

Best meal you've ever had on a work trip? Alinea. Chicago, 2016.

Favourite city to visit on a work trip? Tokyo and Paris.

Your approach to jet lag? I never get jet lag. I am just immune to it.

Train or plane? I am terrified of flying.  Like I literally pray and I’m not religious.  So I prefer the train because it's on the ground. 

Carry-on or check-in? Carry-on

In-flight meal or starve? Starve unless I fly business class, but even in business class it's generally not that good.

Most memorable trip experience? True story—I once flew for Tales of the Cocktail awards from London to New Orleans. It was my first business class flight ever and I had a huge night before; I was so hungover on the flight.  I went to take my seat and was actually pretty angry at myself because for once I was in business class but in such shit condition. Then I look over and one of my heroes is sitting right beside me, Al Pacino.  We had very short conversation - like 3-4 minutes.  I apologized for disturbing him and just told him that was a huge fan.  I didn’t bother asking for a photo.   I remember he called me 'son'—that was pretty cool moment.


Make sure to visit @barleonehk on your next trip to Hong Kong and say hi to @lorenzoantinori_ and the team. We hear he has a funny story about boarding the wrong plane and only realising this mid-flight, but you’ll have to ask him in person.