Milwaukee’s Three Brothers Serves Classic Serbian Cuisine With Old-World Hospitality
In a dimly lit former Schlitz tavern, the Radicevic family has cooked up Serbian meals for generations of Milwaukee families. It’s here that couples in their 80s continue to sit at the same Formica tables they did decades ago to celebrate anniversaries and birthdays. And where their 30-something grandchildren continue to return for the embrace of a home-cooked meal.
Since 1955, Three Brothers has been more than a restaurant serving an enticing menu of chicken paprikash, goulash and sarma. It’s the quintessential story of the American dream and a thank you to a community that welcomed an immigrant family with open arms.
Bringing a taste of the Balkans to the Midwest
Prior to World War II, Milun “Mike” Radicevic was a restaurateur and winery owner in the former Yugoslavia, But in the 1940s, he was sent to a concentration camp, and his son Branko ended up in a Gestapo jail. Mike Radicevic was able to escape, and after assisting a French platoon, received amnesty to America through a sponsorship by a Milwaukee family.
Starting a new career as a wholesale liquor salesman, Mike Radicevic worked to bring his wife, Milunka, and children to the states, and at the same time, began to build a restaurant that would give them a place to call their own. Eventually, Three Brothers became an Ellis Island in the Midwest where the Radicevic family members finally reunited, reconnecting over meals from their home country, cooked by Milunka Radicevic in the restaurant’s kitchen.
“My grandmother was an incredible chef who brought with her recipes that she recreated, readapted and reinterpreted for what was available in Milwaukee at the time,” says the Radicevics’ granddaughter Milunka, who shares her grandmother’s name. “In the late 1950s, you didn’t have access to the imports we do now, so she made her own cheeses and all of her own dough from scratch.”
Diners from across Milwaukee soon fell in love with Three Brothers’ Serbian cuisine, which blends together Greek, Turkish, Austrian and Hungarian influences to create cuisine with stick-to-your-ribs heartiness and melt-in-your mouth flavors. In 2002, the restaurant won a James Beard Foundation award in the American Classics category, which recognizes regional establishments that combine quality food with local character for long-lasting appeal.
Today, the restaurant is run by Patricia Radicevic, who took over after her husband, Branko, passed away in 2015. Along with her daughter, Milunka, Patricia Radicevic sticks with the same formula Three Brothers stirred up years ago. Everything is still homemade, with a focus on the slow-roasted, the braised and the pickled.
“The seasoning in Serbian cuisine isn’t exotic, but it’s the preparation that results in a very rich, detailed flavor,” Milunka Radicevic explains. “For instance, our goulash is a stunning beef stew that literally melts in your mouth. It has a beautiful, hearty sauce that needs no creams or thickeners, and we serve it with our handmade potato dumplings. That’s really what Serbian cuisine is about—beautiful, simple meals made from love.”
Other favorites among diners include Three Brothers’ suckling pig, with its crispy, crackling skin and tender meat that are made for dipping into a deep, dark au jus. There are two types of musaka, one layered with eggplant and beef for the meat eaters and one with cheese and vegetables for the vegetarians, each with fluffy layers that are as light as air. To prepare their famous sarma, Three Brothers wraps pickled cabbage leaves around slow-cooked Angus beef and rice.
Three Brothers’ signature dish is its burek, a thick Serbian pastry featuring layers of flaky, paper-thin filo dough that houses a beef, cheese, or spinach and cheese filling. Big enough to feed four people, the dish needs to be ordered as soon as you walk in the door as it needs 45 minutes to an hour to prepare.
While Three Brothers is known for its impressive menu, it’s equally renowned for its customer service. From the moment you step inside, you can escape the rush of life and be taken care of for an evening with incredible food and hospitality.
“Everyone who dines with us says it feels like they’re coming back to grandma’s house,” says Milunka Radicevic. “There’s an energy of gratitude and warmth in the space that really just gives them a big hug. For me, that’s the magic of Three Brothers.”
2414 S. St. Clair St., Milwaukee
Featured image courtesy of Jessica Kaminski for Refinery Photo Studio.