James R. Lencioni, AIA
Founder/Board of Directors
In 1989, Jim co-founded Aria Group and has since been an integral part in growing and evolving Aria Group into a world-class architectural design firm known for both its award-winning projects within every sector of hospitality as well as their client-centric service philosophy. As a member of the Board of Directors, Jim maintains meaningful relationships with a vast array of clients within the firm. Over the last 30+ years, he has led the design development on countless restaurant, entertainment, hotel, casino and multi-use projects.
Spanning his four decades, Jim has partnered with Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc., including Foodlife, Foodease, Bub City, Maggiano’s and Corner Bakery, Wildfire and Paris Club/Studio Paris. He has assisted many individual operators in developing new concepts including Potbelly, Protein Bar & Kitchen, Cucina Paradiso and Maya Del Sol and more. On large-scale hospitality and gaming projects, Jim has led projects at Brookfield Zoo, Blue Chip Hotel, Rosemont Casino, City Park, Esplanade, Hyatt Place, and Hawthorne Casino & Racecourse; along with a portfolio of larger corporate projects including Eagle Ridge Inn and Conference Center, Deerpath Office Building and Borst Office Building.
Jim is on the Board of Directors for the Oak Park YMCA and was board chair for three years; as well as being active at St. Giles Church. He has been a member of TEC (currently Vistage), president of Toastmasters and Vice President of the St. Vincent DePaul Society. Jim and his wife Kathy have three children and have lived in Oak Park since 1986 where he is the Chair of the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals, a board member of the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club, and a board member of Opportunity Knocks. He has been a member of A.I.A. since 1989 and he is NCARB certified and licensed in 42 states. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with family and six grandchildren and is an avid golfer and handball player.Chris Hamer, AIA, LEED AP
Chris Hamer, AIA, LEED AP
As President, Chris builds client relationships with responsiveness and dedication, continuing the standards set by Aria’s founders. He sets the course for company strategy and provides inspired leadership to our executive team. Chris also leads one of the studios in the office – leading a group of exceptional design and technical teammates building exciting brands and environments for clients.
In his years at Aria Group, Chris has been involved in all aspects of project development from concepting to design to drafting to contract administration. His focus has been on learning the aesthetic, functional and operational needs of his clients to deliver the best possible project. Understanding the way, the business is run, how food gets from kitchen to table, is just as important as delivering a great looking space. He also has been involved in marketing, social media, and branding for our firm.
Chris has completed projects across the country for a number of multi-unit and independent clients including: California Pizza Kitchen, Nordstrom, Dave & Buster’s, Del Frisco’s, Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille and Tortazo by Rick Bayless.
Chris joined Aria in 2004 and was promoted to Associate in 2013, and Senior Associate in 2018. He was promoted to President in 2023. Before joining Aria Group, Chris worked at Holabird & Root as a technician and Project Coordinator. He is a licensed architect in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon and Washington State, a member of the American Institute of Architects and is a LEED© Accredited Professional. Chris served two terms on the Building Code Advisory Commission in his hometown of Oak Park, where he advised on code adoption and interpretation, and is the former Communications Chair for the AIA’s Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community. In his spare time, he plays music and rides bikes.Megan Walsh, AIA
Megan Walsh, AIA
Chief Business Development Officer/ Assoc Principal
As Chief Business Development Officer, Megan leads Business Development and Marketing for Aria Group. Through her work in this role, she also leads through strategy focused on Client Experience and Growth. As a design leader in the firm, she also focuses on building relationships with clients and collaborators – valuing how relationships are the building blocks of our success as a company. She in particular enjoys brainstorming the client and project team – developing solutions together to support the project goals.
Megan has completed projects across the country and internationally for a number of multi-unit and independent clients including: Topolobampo, Bar Sotano, Rick Bayless Tortazo, Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, Carve American Grille, Mastro’s Steakhouse, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, Esquire Champagne Room, Nando’s US & Canada, Wagamama, and Pono Ono Poke.
Megan joined Aria Group in 2002. She moved to California in 2005, where she gained further experience in high-end residential, office, and retail architecture and design. Upon returning to Chicago in 2010, she rejoined Aria Group as a Senior Designer. She was promoted to Project Designer in 2011 and Senior Associate in 2018. She was promoted to CBDO and Associate Principal in 2023. Megan is a licensed architect and member of the American Institute of Architects. Her previous experience includes LR Development (Related Midwest), Lettuce Office (a Los Angeles design firm), and Robert Mahterian Architects.Dan Bernatek, AIA
Dan Bernatek, AIA
Principal/Chief Human Resources Officer
As Principal and Chief Human Resources Officer, Dan oversees our Human Resources team and our People/Talent Development strategies. He takes an active interest in employee training and preserving our office culture.
Dan also leads one of the studios in the firm. Within the studio, he attempts to create a collaborative atmosphere with all employees 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.
Dan has been involved with a variety of projects over the years; from P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Kona Grill to more recently Catalina, Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurants, Piccolo Buco, and PopStroke.
Dan joined Aria Group in 1995 and takes pride that Aria Group has been his first and only firm since graduation. He was promoted to Project Architect in 2001 and has since been named Associate in 2005, Senior Associate in 2018 and Principal in 2023. He became a licensed architect in the state of Illinois in 2000 and is currently licensed in multiple states across the country.Frank Cavanaugh
Principal/Board of Directors
As Principal, Frank leads a talented team of architects and interior designers as a studio leader. As a member of the Board of Directors, he advises on the overall direction of the firm. Frank also is involved as a Project Designer on various large-scale projects, in particular Planning projects within the office.
Frank has led and designed many large-scale projects throughout his career at Aria Group. Large retail and mixed-use projects include City Park Retail Center, The Esplanade of Algonquin. Hospitality and Entertainment designs include the original Hawthorne Casino & Racecourse, Brookfield Zoo – South American Market Place, Blue Chip Resort Hotel and Casino, 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 concepts for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises over the years, including the design of several Wildfire restaurants.
In 1995 Frank joined Aria Group and was promoted to Principal in 2000. He began his career working at the office of Krueck and Olsen Architects. Frank moved on to the office of Lohan Associates where he became an Associate and Project Designer for several corporate and institutional projects. 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.Christopher DeBoer
Principal/Chief Financial Officer
As Principal and Chief Financial Officer, Chris oversees the daily financial administration and direction of the firm. He also leads Information Technology strategies, in accordance with Aria Group’s 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 team.
Chris joined Aria Group as an Intern Architect in 1996, then took on the role of CAD Manager in 1997. He worked with the principals to develop firm wide Drafting Standards. Chris’s role as CAD Manager grew into the position of Systems Administrator as he continuously advanced Aria Group’s technological resources. Chris became an Associate of the firm in 2002 and an Associate Principal in 2020. He was promoted to Principal in 2023.David Nash, AIA
David Nash, AIA
Principal/Chief Operations Officer
As Principal and COO, Dave oversees business operations for Aria Group. He ensures our company is efficient and effective through refining process and implementing technology. Dave also leads one of the studios in the office – leading a group of exceptional design and technical teammates while working together to create exciting environments for clients. 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.
Dave has been fostering our relationship with Los Angeles based California Pizza Kitchen since 2004, along with many others. He is currently also working with Gordon Ramsay North America, Caesar’s Entertainment, and Landry’s. He has worked with London based restaurant concepts such as Nando’s, Yo! Sushi, and Ping Pong Dim Sum. Working with these clients has provided invaluable experience in helping international clients establish their brands in the US. Large scale projects have ranged from the Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse in Chicago’s historic Esquire Theater, Hawthorne Casino & Racecourse, Blue Chip Casino, and the Brookfield Zoo Coast exhibit.
Dave joined Aria Group after graduating from school in 1995. He was promoted to Project Manager in 2001, was licensed in the State of Illinois in 2005 and became an Associate the same year. He was promoted Principal in 2023. Dave has been an AIA member since 2005.Walter Pancewicz, AIA
Walter Pancewicz, AIA
Founder/Board of Directors
In 1989, Walter became a founding member and Principal of Aria Group. As a member of the Board of Directors, Walter advises on the financial strategy and direction of the firm. Walter previously led one of the studios within the firm, leading a talented team of architects and designers creating innovative hospitality and entertainment projects.
Walter has managed the development, rebranding and growth of a number of national clients as well as independent restaurants and retailers. Multi-unit clients include U.S. based California Pizza Kitchen, Perry’s Steakhouse, Carve American Grille, Landry’s, and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. International clients include U.K.-based Nando’s (locations in the U.S. and Canada), Leon’s, and Ping Pong Dim Sum. Some of Walter’s large-scale projects include Hawthorne Casino & Racecourse; 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. Independent clients include Topolobampo & Bar Sotano for Rick Bayless, Pono Ono Poke, and Piccolo Sogno Due.
Walter began his career at Kessler & Merci Architects specializing in sports/health projects. He also worked at Bernheim & Kahn Ltd. where he worked as a Project Architect specializing in public works projects such as schools, and restaurants. It is also where he met his future partners. Walter is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the International Building Code Council. He currently carries licenses for 10 states. In his spare time, Walt is involved with the Oak Park Education Foundation’s innovative Vex Robotics Competition.
As a Principal and shareholder, Thomas leads a multi-disciplinary studio of designers and architects. His depth of experience enriches a strong design approach that is client-driven and seamlessly balances the design objectives with the client’s overall vision and, ultimately, a successful project. Employing this client service philosophy each and every time is reflected in the countless number of lasting business partnerships Thomas continues to serve today. Likewise, by empowering his studio team members with a true sense of ownership and freedom to innovate, the collaboration that is instilled throughout can be measured through each technician, designer and project manager’s dedication and work as well as the numerous award-winning projects over the years. Thomas also collaborates with human resources, mentors team members, and provides quality control of design and construction drawings.
He leads national, multi-unit hospitality brands spanning from fast casual icon Shake Shack to the global sports-driven entertainment leader, Topgolf. Local projects in the Chicagoland area include the Chicago Firehouse restaurant in the South Loop and the Park Grille at Millennium Park. Notable among the studio’s work are the Topgolf Houston, TX venue winner of the Landmark’s Award for design excellence, and the Topgolf Hillsboro, OR venue which won the excellence in concrete award from the American Concrete Institute. In 2017, Thomas accepted the International Interior Design Association Design Red Award for the studio’s One Fifty-One Restaurant and Bar in Elmhurst, IL.
Thomas joined Aria Group Architects, Inc. in 1992 and currently oversees 24 talented architectural and interior design studio team members. Thomas 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 volunteers with Misericordia, an organization providing care and networking for people with disabilities. He also volunteers with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.Joseph Vajda, AIA, LEED© AP BD+C
Joseph Vajda, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Founder/Board of Directors
In 1989, Joe became a founding member and Principal of Aria Group. As a member of the Board of Directors, Joe advises on the operational strategy and direction of the firm. Previously as a principal, Joe provided Aria Group with a firm foundation of technical understanding and ecological efforts. He focused on implementing office wide quality control procedures and standards as well as the technical education of the team. 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.
Over the years, Joe has managed the development and growth of a number of national multi-unit clients as well as working with independent restaurateurs, including Cooper’s Hawk, Dave & Buster’s, True Food Kitchen, and PF Chang’s. 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 in the firm.
Joe 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 licensed in multiple states as well as qualified for self-certification work in the City of Chicago. Joe is a member of the American Institute of Architects and the National Fire Protection Association. He has served as a board member on the Hammond Historic Preservation Commission, where he wrote numerous articles on technical issues for the newsletter. 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.