Woman of the Year: Leslie Shalabi

Leslie Shalabi believes in the power of good food.

More than that, she believes in the power of community and how breaking bread can spark conversation, ideas and connectivity.

“We all eat,” Shalabi said. “And food has a way of bringing people together.”

As the owner and co-founder behind Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque — which she and her then-husband, Mike Muench, launched in 2017 — Shalabi has crafted a North End empire that has been credited by neighborhood residents and community leaders with helping solve the problem of food accessibility.

The nonprofit organization not only serves as a unique dining space — growing much of its food on site and in various locations in the north end and featuring open seating to encourage patrons to mix and mingle — but it also distributes dollars from the restaurant and food to those facing food insecurities.

Some of that outreach has included giving away free casseroles, organizing neighborhood volunteers to pick vegetables and help with food preparation, delivering food to those in need, and hosting community events such as cooking classes, live entertainment and community forums.

The vision for Convivium was born out of Shalabi and Muench’s drive to do more.

“At the time, we both were feeling kind of ‘meh’ in our careers,” Shalabi said. “We had accomplished what we wanted to and had lucrative 401(k)s, but our hearts were empty. We were looking for what was next and were in a place in our lives where we were looking toward what kind of legacy we could leave behind and how we could be helpful, give back and connect with the community.”

Shalabi previously worked as a marketing director for an insurance company after initially studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Having always been passionate about food — and finding the perfect location for their vision at 2811 Jackson St. — Shalabi and Muench set to work on crafting ample space to accommodate a large kitchen, a green house and growing space, indoor and outdoor seating, and a small coffee shop.

Shalabi and Muench remain business partners in the venture.

Convivium volunteer and friend Cynthia Nelms-Byrne, of Dubuque, described Shalabi as someone she’d follow anywhere.

“She has a great relationship with her staff and volunteers,” Nelms-Byrne said. “She helps the community in so many ways and makes it all fun. She really knows how to get things done.”

And with an eye toward legacy, Shalabi also has passed her knowledge on.

“She has taught some of her young employees how to run food services, cook meals,” Nelms-Byrne said. “They have been promoted up the ladder as they progress. Several who began as waitstaff have gone on to management and other positions.”

In addition to her work at Convivium, Shalabi also is a vocalist, performing alongside musicians in Madison before relocating to Dubuque and finding a musical home locally. She also recently appeared as part of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra’s annual Ultimate Rock Hits concerts at the Mississippi Moon Bar.

In the past year, she also entered a body building contest which found her hiring a coach; spending two hours per day at the gym, five to six days per week; and measuring every morsel of food, omitting sweets, cheese and alcohol.

At 51, she stepped on stage in a sparkly thong bikini and won first place in her age group for the contest.

“Going through my divorce and the loss of both my parents, I was in a sad time, so I allowed myself to be sad,” Shalabi said. “But I also found that I wanted to keep myself busy. I wanted to do something to take care of myself and to set a really extreme and crazy goal that I could dig into. It felt great.”

As for Convivium, Shalabi intends to stay grounded in her vision, continuing to find ways to reach out to, as well as help build community.

“It has been something that has really been embraced by the neighborhood,” she said. “But it also has lived up to the vision. It’s fun to watch people come in, sit down and enjoy conversation with someone they might not have known before. That’s part of why we offer the kind of open seating that we do, to encourage community and, like in Europe, encourage people to slow down and enjoy good food and good company. People who come for the free casseroles also will show up early, and it becomes a social time for them.”

On being recognized as a Woman of the Year, Shalabi said she found the honor overwhelming.

“I’m proud and amazed, but also just grateful,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”