Walking into Leila feels like coming home.
The cozy Syrian-Lebanese restaurant located in the heart of downtown West Palm Beach has been a mainstay of the local dining scene since the doors first opened 14 years ago.
Initially conceived as a small sandwich shop, Leila’s owner Akram Alex Awad and cousin Roy Assad realized that their idea could bloom into something much bigger.
“West Palm didn’t have a white tablecloth Middle Eastern restaurant,” Awad explains. “There were take-out places and sandwich shops but nothing where you could sit down and have a nice meal, so Leila became the first.”
A veteran of the jewelry business with a background in law, Awad’s decision to go into the restaurant business was inspired by a desire to enjoy life.
“Roy came up with the idea,” he said. “We wanted to create something new and this sounded like a fun thing to do. I love my job – I’m always socializing and meeting new people.”
“When people come in, they’re smiling and happy. And if they’re not, I make sure that when they leave, they’re smiling and happy,” Awad said. “If I can take a little bit of pressure off a person, if I can give them an hour of peace so they can come in and enjoy themselves? Then, I’ve done my job.”
Alex and Roy’s sharp business acumen has made Leila a success. The restaurant has a four-star Yelp rating and glowing reviews in the Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Illustrated and the Sun Sentinel, but the real genius here is Awad’s wife, executive chef Mireille Awad.
Using family recipes as the source of her inspiration, Chef Awad blends traditional Syrian and Lebanese influences to create her culinary masterpieces and goes as far as to make her own orange blossom syrup for the flaky baklava served on the dessert menu.
“It’s a labor of love,” Awad says. “The syrup takes hours and hours of stirring but that’s the reason our baklava tastes the way it does. Same thing with her kibbeh (minced beef sautéed with onion and toasted pine nuts served in a bulgur wheat shell). Nobody makes it like Mireille.”
Family is at the heart of everything the Awads do. Their children Constantine and Christine both work at Leila while pursuing their education.
“Study and study,” Awad says. “Every day. Education is so important. It keeps kids off the streets. I let my children decide their own philosophies and I want them to learn from me. Use my mistakes as an advisory and add to the good my wife and I have done.”
It is this focus on family, children and community development that inspired Awad to unite with Community Partners. While living in Los Angeles, the Awads did a lot of catering for local churches, so partnering with non-profits has been engrained in their lives for years.
“We’ve been here for 14 years and I believe in giving back what I receive. West Palm, it feels like it belongs to you. It’s a growing city and there’s a future here,” he said. “We love the concept of what Community Partners is doing. Like Leila, it’s based on family.”
Leila will proudly feature their cuisine at Community Partners’ fourth annual Crab Cake Cook-Off for Changing The Odds. The menu hasn’t been finalized yet but Awad is considering serving some of his favorites – shish tawook (grilled chicken breast marinated in fresh garlic, olive oil and lemon zest) and Leila’s lush and creamy hummus.
“We grew up eating this food,” he says. “And I have the freshest food in downtown West Palm Beach!”
An oasis in the midst of a bustling city, Leila has helped changed the landscape of the West Palm Beach dining scene and we are thrilled they are working with Community Partners to help in Changing The Odds in Palm Beach County.
120 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL 33401