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Infamous Miami Nightlife Impresario Chris Paciello Is Helping The Resurgence Of Watson Island

Mio Danilovic had been a vice president at lifestyle hotel conglomerate SBE, in charge of running high-end clubs in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. When he was preparing to move to Miami several years ago, he imagined he would discover scores of European-style waterfront bars and restaurants, where people would eat and drink, lounge in the sun and dip in the water.

"You would expect a hundred of them, but there's not a single one," he said.  

Along with his partner, Chris Paciello — one of the most influential figures in Miami nightlife in the 1990s before a stint in federal prison — Danilovic is preparing to open the first.

Infamous Miami Nightlife Impresario Chris Paciello Is Helping The Resurgence Of Watson Island
The view from Joia Beach, on Watson Island in Miami Beach.

As many tourists are surprised to discover every day, the vast majority of Miami's waterfront real estate is claimed either by private hotels or condos. Waterfront bars and restaurants that do exist either aren't on the beach, are unsophisticated, private or are not geared for swimming.

But that's changing, especially with new development on a prime piece of Miami real estate: Watson Island.

Danilovic and Paciello are opening a new concept there, dubbed Joia Beach. They are partners in Liquid Hospitality and run the Miami Beach nightclub Rockwell. Paciello also owns a small chain of Anatomy gyms.

Joia Beach will have a full bar and restaurant, and beach chairs available for rent.

"It's the most unique property in Miami," Danilovic said. "You can come by car, by boat."

Paciello said the vibe would be similar to a Soho House or a Standard Hotel, but open to the public, and not as loud and party-oriented as, say, Nikki Beach, a South Beach hangout known for DJs and daybeds.

"This will feel more chill, laid back," Paciello said. "You could spend most of the day and if you want to go and get crazy, you leave later on and go to one of those places."

Paciello was a member of a Mafia-linked street gang in New York in the early 1990s, where he was involved in dozens of bank heists and one home robbery where his associate shot and killed a woman while he was the getaway driver.

Paciello reportedly used ill-gotten proceeds to move to Miami and become a partner in the nightclubs Risk and Liquid and a restaurant named Joia, just as South Beach was becoming a major party destination for the jet-set crowd. Paciello hung out with Madonna and Sofia Vergara.

When his past caught up to him in 1999, he pled guilty to racketeering, murder and armed robbery charges, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But he cooperated with the government to turn in dozens of Mafia associates and served only five years.

He said that he changed his ways long ago, once he left New York, and that he has never read the book or watched the documentary made about him. 

"When I came back, everyone welcomed me with open arms because the eight years that I was here, I always did the right thing," he said. "Everybody, you know, had that respect for me. So they didn't know me from the past. Fortunately, when I came back, it was a welcoming."

Paciello returned from prison and several years in the witness protection program in 2011, according to the Miami Herald. He said he returned to relaunch the nightlife, food, beverage and entertainment programs at the Delano hotel, owned by SBE.

He partnered with Dave Grutman, who now operates Liv at the Fontainebleau and his own nightlife empire, to launch Story nightclub, but sold his interest in 2013. Paciello also runs a med spa called VitaSquad, for vitamin IV infusions. Danilovic moved to Miami around the same time Paciello was launching Rockwell, and they teamed up. 

Joia Beach marks a next step, not just for Paciello, but in the evolution of Watson Island. To travel between downtown Miami and Miami Beach, drivers hopscotch over the Intracoastal Waterway via bridges that touch down upon several tiny islands.

Because of their prime location and 360-degree views of Biscayne Bay, most of what are called the Venetian Islands are home to billions of dollars of residential real estate. But because of deed restrictions in place since the early 1900s, Watson Island, owned by the city of Miami, has been reserved mostly for municipal uses, like a seaplane facility and a public boat ramp. There are a few scrappy marinas. In 2003, the Miami Children's Museum and the Jungle Island zoo moved onto the island.

Watson Island in Miami, viewed from the MacArthur Causeway
Watson Island in Miami, viewed from the MacArthur Causeway

In the early 2000s, Miami selected Flagstone Property Group to redevelop a site on Watson Island. Chairman and CEO Mehmet Bayraktar announced plans for a $575M project with a superyacht marina, two hotels, fractional residences, high-end retail shops, waterfront dining and more. He likened it to St. Tropez, Monte Carlo and Monaco.

But the project stalled — first because of the Great Recession, then because Flagstone and the city have been battling in court over the pace of development — a matter in which Flagstone prevailed last year. The marina came to fruition in 2016 and a restaurant and bar, Deck at Island Gardens (run by nightlife veteran Michael Capponi) was added.

During the Super Bowl last week, the marina hosted billionaires' yachts. A 65K SF pop-up entertainment venue was built to stage concerts by Harry Styles, Lada Gaga and Lizzo. 

On the other side of the island, Jungle Island had been falling behind on rent payments to the city because of deteriorating facilities and low attendance. It closed for months for repairs after the destruction of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners bought it with plans to update it as as action/adventure park with a 13-story hotel. Voters had to approve the plan, which they did in August. Joia Beach is part of that site. 

Paciello said that he had been in talks for years about trying to take over the beach part of Jungle Island, but conversations stalled when ESJ was negotiating to buy the property.

"Once they took it over, they reached back out to us," he said.

The partners said that Miami has many of the same challenges as other nightlife markets: It is dependent largely on tourists, and there's plenty of competition.

The Miami nightlife scene has changed since the '90s. A midsized hip-hop club is a better bet than a huge electro venue, celebrities won't show up at a venue without getting paid, and city leaders have become laissez-faire. 

"There's plenty of places that have great beaches and palm trees. They know nightlife is a big driver for the city and they have backed off a lot," Paciello said.

Paciello and Danilovic said they signed a management agreement and expect to run Joia Beach for a decade. They hoped to open Feb. 10, but the date could change based on a few last details. 

"We try to stay innovative and stay true to what we are, and try to provide the most fun experience for people.  It's booking the right talent and bringing the right people through the doors," Paciello said. "We really think we have something really special here that's going to be for longevity — not one season, but for 20 years from now. A place where, you know, it's going to be an institution."