Jussie Smollett 'Empire' Future Looking Bright After NYC Power Lunch

4/25/2019 10:31 AM PDT

Jussie Smollett Hanging with 'Empire' Exec, Signs Point to Him Returning

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Jussie Smollett might have secured his return to "Empire" -- despite ongoing controversy over the alleged Chicago "attack" -- when he kicked it in NYC with a pretty powerful show exec.

TMZ got this video of the actor leaving lunch at a Lafayette restaurant Wednesday, and he told us he was feeling "pride" about his work on the show. Turns out, he may have been feeling optimistic as well ... because the guy he was lunching with was showrunner Brett Mahoney.

Sources close to Mahoney -- who's publicly voiced his support for Jussie in the past -- tell us the lunch Wednesday was a casual hangout, and not the first time the 2 have seen each other since Jussie wrapped on "Empire" amid his scandal.

We're told Brett's been telling his friends Jussie's future on the show is still up in the air, but it's unclear if the topic was broached during their lunch.

You'll recall, earlier this week, "Empire" creator and executive producer Lee Daniels said the same -- that they're currently considering bringing Jussie back.

Now, let's connect the dots ... seems unlikely that Mahoney would break bread with Jussie if he thought they were about to 86 him from the show.

Another strong sign for Jussie ... the letter his costars Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard wrote imploring network execs to let Jussie stay on the show. They said he's innocent and "filled with integrity" and they want to "put this behind us and move forward.”

The NY Post first reported Mahoney was lunching with Jussie. We'll see how it plays out, but that meal might end up being the crucial moment "Empire" and its star smoothed things out. 

As we've told you, Jussie's still dealing with drama in Chi-town ... namely that civil lawsuit the city filed to get Jussie to pay for the investigation into the alleged "attack." Essentially, Chicago wants a trial to prove he lied to cover up a hoax.