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Outback ready to offer a taste of Italy with new restaurants

After a year of testing, Outback Steakhouse Inc. is ready to unleash its new Italian restaurant concept on Florida's west coast.

The Tampa-based steakhouse chain, already a Wall Street darling, will be opening four of its new Carrabba's restaurants from Tampa Bay south to Naples this year.

Outback is bankrolling the expansion of Carrabba's in a 50-50 joint venture with its Houston creators, John Carrabba and his uncle, Damion Mandola.

Carrabba's has been described as an eating experience between an Olive Garden and Romano's Macaroni Grille, with an Italian menu jazzed up for Texas taste buds.

Its first four stores in Houston are averaging more than $3-million each in annual sales. That's close to what a typical Outback generates. Dinner-only Carrabba's is priced so the average meal is $17 including wine, about $2 more than Outback's steakhouses have been getting.

"It's the sort of Italian food you couldn't cook at home," said Harry Venezia, an analyst with Raymond James & Associates. "One of the signature appetizers is a stuffed artichoke that's a lot spicier than any my grandmother made. This has the potential to be as big as the steakhouses."

Stores feature fresh pasta, grilled meats and cooking exhibitions such as pizza flinging, saucemaking and pastamaking in full view of patrons.

The first store in Fort Myers opens in April, then one in Naples in May. Negotiations are under way for a Palm Harbor store that would open in late summer.

"We'll be in Tampa and St. Petersburg as soon as we can nail down sites after that," said Outback chairman Chris Sullivan. "We're going to see in Florida if we can take this concept on the road" and develop it into the company's next growth vehicle.

Outback disclosed the schedule at a Raymond James & Associates institutional investors conference here Tuesday.

The company, however, is concentrating most of its finances on building its popular steakhouses into a nationwide chain.

Until this year, the company never intended to go west of the Mississippi. But when Outback first opened, the three founding partners never envisioned expanding beyond Tampa Bay, either.

Outback is trying to enter six markets this year and maintain its pace of adding 60 new stores a year.

Company stores will be opened in Denver and Chicago in 1994. Joint venture partners who developed other markets for Outback have signed up to develop Las Vegas, St. Louis and Phoenix. A franchise has been sold for Northern California.

Outback is far from the only casual dining chain focusing on giving Olive Garden, a General Mills company, a run for its money.

Apple South Inc. is developing Tampa-born Gianni's Cafe into a chain but is still testing after opening four restaurants in Georgia. And Brinker International Inc., best known for Chili's, is opening more locations of its Romano's Macaroni Grille, which was created by the originators of Fuddrucker's.

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