Our People

Principals

James R. Lencioni, AIA
President/Senior Architect
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Jim co-founded Aria Group Architects, Inc. in 1989. As President and Senior Architect he has maintained a strong client contact with most projects in the firm. Jim is licensed in 42 states and is NCARB certified so he is heavily involved in quality control.

The firm’s concentration on hospitality has allowed Jim to lead the development of over 80 restaurant concepts for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., including Foodlife, Foodease, Bub City, Maggiano’s, Corner Bakery, Reel Club, Wildfire and ParisClub/Studio Paris. He brings over 35 years of experience in hospitality projects in assisting entrepreneurs in developing new concepts or helping existing concepts refresh to stay competitive in this expanding market segment. He has also led the office teams on our riverboat gaming projects, many projects at Brookfield Zoo, Blue Chip Hotel, Rosemont Casino, City Park, Esplanade, Eagle Ridge Inn and Resort, and Hyatt Place projects.

Jim is on the Board of Directors for the West Cook YMCA and was board chair for three years; as well as being active at St. Giles Church. He is a member of the Oak Park River Forest Rotary and the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals. Jim has been a member of TEC (currently Vistage), president of Toastmasters and Vice President of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. For the past few years he has provided design consultation at the NRA Show’s “Ask the Design Experts” segment. Jim has three children and has resided in Oak Park, IL since 1986. He has been a member of AIA since 1989.

He obtained his Associates degree in Architectural Technology from Purdue University in 1972. In 1976 he graduated from the University of Illinois Chicago with a Bachelor’s in Architectural Design. From 1973 to 1979, Jim worked as a draftsman, architect, designer, estimator, construction laborer, superintendent and project manager for Olivieri Brothers, Inc. Olivieri Brothers was an architectural firm, developer, and general contractor. During this time Jim was responsible for a wide variety of project types including industrial buildings, banks, apartment buildings, restaurant design, retail stores, churches and custom homes.

In 1978, Jim obtained his Illinois Architectural License and the next year joined Bernheim, Kahn and Lozano (“BKL”) as Project Architect where he met his fellow cofounders of Aria Group, Walter Pancewicz and Joe Vajda. Jim was responsible for a wide variety of projects including the corporate office and warehouse of Carpetland, historic renovation at the Delaware Building in Chicago, various facilities for United Savings and Loan, and the Deerpath Office Building. In 1983 he became the senior architect at BKL and directed the firm into a higher concentration of restaurants including the four star Charlie Trotters Restaurant. In 1985, Jim also taught an estimating class to seniors at Purdue University. 

Walter Pancewicz, AIA
Vice President
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As Vice President, Walter serves as the Corporate CFO and Managing Partner where he oversees the daily administration and direction of the firm, as well as one of the four studios. Within his studio Walter has managed the development, rebranding and growth of a number of national clients as well as independent restaurants and retailers. A short list of these clients include U.S. based California Pizza Kitchen, Nordstrom Café and eBar, Dave & Buster’s, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse and Weber Grill. International clients include U.K. - based Nando’s Peri-Peri (locations in the U.S. and Canada) and Ping Pong Dim Sum. Some of Walter’s large-scale projects include Eagle Ridge Resort in Galena, IL; Crown Office Building in Chicago, IL; City Park Lifestyle Shopping Center in Lincolnshire, IL, Fila U.S. corporate headquarters and the high-end fashion retailer, Ikram. 

Walter is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the International Building Code Council. He currently carries licenses for Illinois, Delaware, Nevada, Louisiana, Idaho and is in the process of obtaining licenses in 20 other states as well as provinces in Canada. In his spare time, Walt is involved with the Oak Park Education Foundation’s innovative Vex Robotics Competition.

Walter Pancewicz obtained a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1982. He began his career in 1982 as an architect for Kessler & Merci Architects specializing in sports/health projects. Prior to Aria Group, Walter also worked at Bernheim & Kahn Ltd. where he worked as a Project Architect, and where he met his future partners. In 1989, Walter became a founding member and Principal of Aria Group Architects, Inc. That same year he received his Illinois Architecture License. 

Joseph Vajda, AIA, LEED© AP BD+C
Principal
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As a Principal, Joe provides overall leadership to the firm on matters of construction, technology and sustainability and he communicates his knowledge to all the studios. Whether he is providing hands-on assistance or serving as an advisor, he provides Aria Group with a firm foundation of technical understanding and ecological efforts. To that end, Joe focuses on implementing office wide quality control procedures and standards as well as the technical education of the staff. This includes IDP efforts for interns, NCIDQ exam-related seminars for designers and acting as the liaison between the office Green Committee and Principals. It is this high regard for thorough documentation, diligent construction administration and interest in conservation which has helped fuel Aria Group’s reputation and growth since the start of the firm.

Within his studio, Joe has managed the development and growth for a number of national, multi-unit clients as well as working with independent restaurateurs. Joe also oversees numerous international projects with locations as diverse as the Middle East, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Panama, Costa Rica and South America. In 2009, Joe also became a LEED© Accredited Professional and has completed two LEED Certified Gold projects for the firm.

Joe is a member of the American Institute of Architects, the Construction Specifications Institute, and the National Fire Protection Association and he has served as a board member on the Hammond Historic Preservation Commission where he wrote numerous articles on technical issues for the newsletter. He currently serves as the Vice-President of the Plan Commission, President of the Board of Zoning Appeals and is a contributor to the Comprehensive Community Master Plan design charette, all for his hometown community. Joe is also a past member of Vistage, an executive organization that meets monthly to discuss business strategies, best business practices, leadership styles, and other leadership training topics to enhance decision making and business performance. 

Joe received his Bachelor of Science with Honors in Construction Technology from Purdue University in 1987. He previously worked at Bernheim & Kahn Architects in Chicago where he met his future partners Walt and Jim. He received his architectural license in 1995 and is one of 400 architects in the City of Chicago to be self-certified. 

Thomas Smiciklas
Principal
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As a Principal and shareholder Tom leads a multi-discipline studio of designers and architects for many of the firm’s local and national hospitality projects. His depth of experience enriches a strong creative design approach that fits all types of budgets and client needs. Tom’s studio design philosophy is a simple but direct approach in which thoroughly researched product marketing becomes embedded within the client’s overall vision of a successful project. Additional responsibilities include human resources duties, hiring of new staff, mentoring of team members and overall quality control of design and construction drawings.

Notable Chicago projects throughout the years include Joe’s Bebop Café and Jazz Emporium at Navy Pier, P.J. Clarke’s in the Gold Coast area, Keefer’s / Keefer’s Kaffe in the River North neighborhood, Tavern at the Park and the Park Grille at Millennium Park. In 2001 Tom designed the very successful Chicago Firehouse restaurant in the South Loop neighborhood district that won a design award from the Friends of Downtown Civic Organization. 

Out-of-state projects includes Hubbell & Hudson, a 22,000 square foot gourmet food market and bistro located in The Woodlands, Texas. It won Texas Construction’s Best of 2009 Award of Excellence in the “Small Project” Division. TopGolf is a national concept working with Tom and his studio to develop their prototype & brand while they expand throughout the Southern United States. In 2013 TopGolf Houston won the Landmark’s Award for design. This location continues to be the prototype for future TopGolf units. As a studio leader Tom continues to build Aria Group’s relationship with Dave & Buster’s, helping to develop their small and large national format stores. He also continues to foster Aria Group’s relationship with Shake Shack; his studio has been an integral part of their growth on the East Coast of the United States. 

Tom was a founding member of the Illinois Chapter of the National Children’s Cancer Society, a not-for-profit organization that provides financial support to families of children with cancer. He works actively with Misericordia, an organization providing care and networking for people with disabilities. He also volunteers with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Thomas D. Smiciklas obtained a Bachelor of Architecture in Design degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Tom joined Aria Group Architects, Inc. in 1992 and in 1998 he became an equity partner and shareholder.

Frank Cavanaugh
Principal/Senior Designer
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In addition to managing a talented staff of architects and interior designers as a studio leader, Frank also is involved as a Project Designer on various projects. On the corporate side, Frank provides coordination of specific marketing efforts while implementing the Principals’ overall marketing goals.

Frank’s first design project with Aria Group was the Brookfield Zoo “South American Market Place”. Other larger retail and mixed-use projects include City Park Retail Center and The Esplanade of Algonquin. Hospitality and Entertainment designs include the original Blue Chip Resort Hotel and Casino in Michigan City, Indiana; Viper Alley at City Park, Park Plaza in Bowling Green KY, and Alsea’s Italianni’s restaurant brand in Mexico City. Municipal projects include the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center entry addition and G Hall expansion in Rosemont, IL. Hotel projects include work with Hyatt, the Chicago Hilton, The Wit Hotel, the Palmer House Hilton and The Conrad in Chicago. Frank has also developed many new concept plans for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises including the design of several Wildfire restaurants.

In addition to producing architectural renderings for Aria Group’s designs, Frank also works at photography, drawing, plein air painting and studio painting. He has completed several painted mural commissions for his architectural clients as well as other publicly displayed work and is a member of the Oak Park Art League.

Frank received his degree of Bachelors of Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1986 with a minor in Business Administration. He began his career working at the office of Krueck and Olsen Architects working on residential and commercial projects including a Lincoln Park concrete and glass residence and Hewitt Associates office buildings. Frank moved on to the office of Lohan Associates where he became an Associate and Project Designer for several corporate and institutional projects. Selected projects include the DePaul University Library and Quadrangle in Lincoln Park, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business interiors, McDonalds Corporation Lodge and Headquarters office building interiors and the original master plan for St. Xavier University. In 1995 Frank joined Aria Group and was made a Partner in 2000.

Associates

Christopher DeBoer
Associate/Systems Administrator
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In his role as the Systems Administrator he manages information technology resources of Aria Group in accordance with its needs and priorities. He is responsible for the maintenance, configuration, security and reliable operation of computer systems and network infrastructure to ensure that the uptime, performance, resources, and security of the computers meet the needs of the Aria Group staff.

Christopher obtained his Bachelor of Science in Architectural Engineering Technology from University of Cincinnati in 1996. Upon graduation, he accepted an Architectural Intern position with Aria Group Architects, Inc. Christopher took on the position of Cad Manager in 1997 while progressing as an Architectural Intern. He worked with the Principals to develop firm wide Drafting Standards. Christopher’s role as CAD Manager grew into the position of Systems Administrator as he continuously advances Aria Group’s technological resources. Christopher became an Associate of the firm in 2002.

Dan Bernatek, AIA
Associate/Project Manager
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As a Project Manager, Dan leads the project process for the studio from preliminary design through construction, balancing overall project schedules, budgets, and personnel management with the day-to-day details of the drawing sets. Within the studio, he attempts to create a collaborative atmosphere with all staff to achieve the best overall end result. The same approach is taken with each project team, utilizing the expertise of consultants, contractors and clients to meet all the project goals in a timely and cost-effective manner. 

Recent projects include Kona Grill, Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, Standard Market Grill, BrickTop’s, and multiple P.F. Chang’s China Bistro restaurants across the country and abroad.

Dan joined Aria Group Architects, Inc. in February of 1995 shortly before receiving his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He became a licensed architect in the state of Illinois in 2000, was promoted to Project Architect in 2001 and named Associate in 2005.

David Nash, AIA
Associate/Project Manager
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As an Associate, Dave assists in the development of office standards for production documents in order to maintain consistency throughout the drawings. 

As a Project Manager, Dave takes pride in leading a group of exceptional design and technical teammates while working together to create exciting environments for clients. Starting from preliminary design through contract administration, Dave works to help develop schedules, review budgets and bids, and help oversee the overall production of the project. Strong relationships are key to a project’s success, not only within the Aria Group team, but with outside consultants as well. Dave values the relationships developed through each project and works to maintain a positive line of communication throughout the process.

Dave believes in developing long client relationships, as the success of our firm is based off these relationships and those that grow from them. Since 2004, he has been a Project Manager for Los Angeles based California Pizza Kitchen and in 2008 became the Project Manager for Nando’s Peri-Peri, a flame grilled chicken concept originating in London and now established in Washington, DC. 

In addition to Dave’s current clients, he has worked with London based restaurant concepts, Yo! Sushi and Ping Pong Dim Sum, as they brought their cuisine to the Washington, DC area. Working with these clients and Nando’s has provided invaluable experience in helping international clients establish their brand in the US. Other, larger scale projects have ranged from the 24,000 square foot Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Chicago’s historic Esquire Theater, to production work on the Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana, and the Brookfield Zoo Coast exhibit.  

Dave graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Kansas in 1995 and accepted an intern architect position with Aria Group that same year. He was promoted to Project Manager in 2001, was licensed in the State of Illinois in 2005 and became an Associate the same year. Dave has been an AIA member since 2005.

Pam Vajda, LEED© AP
Associate/Project Designer
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As Project Architectural Designer, Pam directs & oversees all design within the JV Studio as well as guiding the team of designers through the process of developing design solutions tailored to meet the needs and budgets of a variety of clients. Pam is primarily responsible for delivering a new and fresh design product to the client that is well thought out and detailed.

Pam joined Aria Group Architects, Inc. in 1994 where she worked in the ranks until 2005, when she was promoted to Associate. In 2009, she became a LEED© Accredited Professional following her interest in sustainable design and conservation.

Prior to joining Aria Group, she spent six years at David A. Harness Architects in Hanna, Indiana where she instituted, developed and managed the interior design department. Pam earned her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

Chris Hamer, AIA, LEED© AP
Associate/Project Manager
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As a Project Manager, Chris oversees day-to-day project tasks from pre-design to the completion of construction. In his ten-plus years at Aria Group, Chris has been involved in all aspects of project development from design to drafting to contract administration. He has completed projects across the country for a number of multi-unit and independent restaurateurs. Chris was named Associate in 2013.

Chris is a member of the American Institute of Architects and is an LEED© Accredited Professional. He currently serves on the Building Code Advisory Commission where he advises on code adoption and interpretation in his hometown of Oak Park.

Chris received his Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies in 2000 and his Masters Degree in 2006 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before joining Aria Group, Chris worked at Holabird & Root as an intern and Project Coordinator.

Ryan Peterson, AIA
Associate/Project Manager
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Since starting at Aria Group in 2002, Ryan has led design and production teams on projects ranging from independently owned restaurants to national and international multi-unit concepts, as well as high-end retail in Chicago’s Gold Coast. Some of his past and current clients include P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Martini Park, Magnolia Bakery in Chicago, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., Ikram, Pie Face in NYC, Rockit Ranch Productions, Roka Akor, Bombay Spice, Del Frisco’s, Dave & Buster’s, Nando’s Chicken, and Perry’s Steakhouse.

Ryan practices his profession with a strong emphasis on relationships with clients, contractors, and consultants, and with hands-on involvement through all phases of his projects. He measures the success of Aria Group by the success of their clients’ projects.

Ryan earned his Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies in 1998 and began working for Jaeger, Nickola & Associates (JNA) as a draftsman, model-builder, renderer, designer, and eventually project manager. His projects at JNA included churches, recreational centers and school additions. In 2001, Ryan earned his Master of Architecture. He earned his architectural license in 2006 and was made an Associate at Aria Group in 2014.

Nicole Poole, AIA, LEED© AP
Associate
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Nicole joined Aria Group Architects in November 2005 and was promoted to Associate in July 2016. Previously she held the position of Project Architectural Designer since 2012. As an Associate she brings a conceptual design to completion as a final designed space. This must be developed in line with the client’s expectations and budgets. Each component in a space, whether it is paint on the wall or a piece of furniture, needs to have a purpose that furthers the overall design goals. Nicole focuses on ensuring that each element’s presence is essential and supports a cohesive concept.


Nicole is involved with a wide variety of Aria Group projects including multiple Dave & Busters, Fielding’s Wood Grill, Giordano’s, Lavazza, Shake Shack and TopGolf locations. One of these projects, TopGolf Houston, recently won the Houston Business Journal’s Landmark Award.


Nicole is a LEED© AP and is always looking for ways to bring sustainability into her current projects. She went to the University of Arkansas, Fay Jones School of Architecture where she received a Bachelor of Architecture with a Minor in Art. She graduated on the Dean’s list in 2005, and during that time spent a semester studying abroad in Rome, Italy. Nicole also spent a semester with the U of A Community Design Center, which has won several national design awards. Prior to working at Aria Group, she worked for Harrison French and Associates on several interior build outs for Jessica McClintock Stores, including the Mall of America location; as well as ANB Financial and Parkway Bank.


She participated in several Aria Group-sponsored design competitions and along with a co-worker took top sixth in an international design competition for the exterior design for EASA headquarters, and second place in an AIA state design competition for an informational kiosk for Architecture Week. Nicole’s artistic interests began at an early age. Today she enjoys designing posters for local theater groups here in Chicago as a creative outlet.

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