“Wow! I haven’t been here for 20 years, and it looks the same!” exclaimed a man as he arrived at the host station of the Italian Village in downtown Chicago to meet a friend for dinner.
The man’s reaction is not uncommon at seeing how little has changed at Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant, actually three restaurants under one roof: The Village, La Cantina, and Vivere. Each has a separate kitchen and is located on a separate floor of the two-story building built in 1927.
Even more unusual these days than surviving and thriving for 85 years is the fact that this business remains in the founding family, now under the leadership of the third generation.
A large portrait of late founder Alfredo Capitanini, an immigrant from northern Italy, greets all who ascend a flight of stairs leading to the second-floor Village, a long and narrow 195-seat restaurant set to look like an Italian courtyard at night, complete with twinkling “stars” overhead. The founder began the restaurant’s long tradition of serving authentic Italian food at a good value. Today’s dinner check average is a moderate $20.
Vivere on street level serves contemporary Italian fare and has a higher check average between $32 and $33. The 115-seat room was updated in 1990 by local avant-garde designer Jordan Mozer and retains that décor today.
La Cantina on the lower level underwent some menu and design modifications three years ago to make it a somewhat clubby 126-seat steak-and-chophouse, in addition to keeping its Italian specialties. Check average there is $22.
The founder’s sons, Ray and Frank, and late daughter Ave, grew up in the business and ran it after their parents retired. Among other achievements, the second generation created an award-winning wine list that today numbers some 1,200 vintages.
Ray, now in his 70s and semi-retired, was especially instrumental in building the wine list. He comes in most days for a few hours to keep an eye on things. Asked why he can’t stay away, he quipped, “I get a free meal out of it this way.”
His brother Frank, now 80, also comes in four days a week in the mornings and expedites in the kitchen. He prides himself on having worked nearly every position in both the back and front of the house.
While the family never adopted formal business titles, Frank’s daughter Gina oversees most aspects of the business today, with help from her brother, Al, who has temporarily cut back his hours while recovering from back surgery, and general manager Joseph Deininger. Another brother, Frank Jr., left the business a few years ago to go into the real estate business. Their sister Lisa, a television producer, never aspired to join the family business.
Teamwork has proven to be a big advantage
The teamwork of running a family business and dividing the duties according to each family member’s interests has been a great advantage, says Al Capitanini. “That keeps it fresh and exciting.”
At his father’s urging, he studied finance in college and worked in banking after he graduated. However, he found that the bureaucracy and specialization of that industry wasn’t a good fit for him.
“I had lunch every day at the restaurant, and one day it dawned on me that the restaurant business could be exciting. There was a lot of bureaucracy in banking. At the restaurant I could be doing four different things and not just one thing, so that’s what lured me,” he said. “Each day is so different.”
Gina Capitanini, who has a college degree in economics, also worked in banking for a few years, at her father’s insistence, before joining the restaurant fulltime. She always saw herself as part of the restaurant since she began accompanying her dad there for a few hours on Sundays as a little girl.
“I sort of grew up in the restaurant. In high school, we didn’t go to summer camp—we worked here. The girls got jobs in the office, but my brothers had to peel potatoes and shrimp and scrub floors,” Capitanini recalls.
Working in a family business has more advantages than disadvantages, she says, because everyone knows and understands each other so well. On the downside, “It can get a little too personal sometimes,” she admits.
She now spends at least 55 hours a week in the restaurant, overseeing the myriads of details the business entails. She is especially involved in scheduling and hiring. “No one gets a job here until I interview them for the second interview to make sure we get the right people,” she says.
The business employs about 150 people, some of whom have been there for decades. One such veteran, Andre Djavadi, has been a captain for most of his 45-year tenure and, when time permits, enthusiastically greets guests upon arrival at The Village.
“This is home—it’s more than a restaurant,” Djavadi says. “The family took care of me. I went to their house for Christmas. They helped to make sure I got better and better. It’s like being a member of the family.”
The ability to retain staff has really helped The Italian Village’s consistency and longevity, says Dean Zanella, executive chef of Rhapsody Italian restaurant in Symphony Center just a few blocks away. Many employees exhibit a sense of ownership in the restaurant, he observes.
“It’s not that they are reinventing the wheel. People like that they can get the same thing they remember from five years ago,” Zanella says.
Working a lot smarter than before
While the family rewards loyalty, they also are “working a lot smarter” than in the past, Capitanini says. “A lot of people are doing two jobs. Where we used to have three full-time people, now we have one plus two or three part-time,” she says.
One example is the change in how reservations are made, now largely through the Open Table online service. “So, we need fewer people taking reservations by phone. They used to come in at 8 a.m. to take reservations,” she notes.
She and her brother have updated many other aspects of the business, particularly marketing, since taking over from the previous generation. Al’s wife, Pam, oversees social media, the website and other marketing matters.
Neighborhood demographic changes have helped the business, which used to be pretty quiet on week nights after office workers left the downtown Loop fairly deserted, except for opera and theater goers on nights when shows were playing. The additions in recent years of high-rise residences, more retail, the major tourist destination of Millennium Park and hotels without foodservice nearby have been a boon.
“I used to be scared to walk to my car after dark,” Capitanini admits. “Now, there usually are people out, even walking dogs. You never used to see that.”
The restaurant does room service via delivery to two hotels and has vastly increased its carryout and delivery services to residents and businesses. Capitanini herself makes deliveries in cases when the usual personnel are too busy or not available.
She steps in wherever needed and keeps the phone ringer on in her office. In case the receptionist doesn’t pick it up after three rings, she takes the call. She also works the floor, goes over menu changes with chefs and oversees the financials, with help from her brother.
The room service, delivery, and carryout aspects of the business have helped to compensate for some lost eat-in business resulting from increased competition from newer restaurants over the years, Capitanini says.
Dan Rosenthal, managing partner of the nearby white tablecloth Trattoria No. 10 and several fast-casual Sopraffina Cafes in the Loop, who calls himself a “friendly competitor,” credits the Capitaninis with doing the right things to keep the business going all of these years. “They consistently provide quality food and hospitality with value,” he says.
“They promote themselves like crazy, and perhaps more importantly, there’s a family member in the restaurants daily to ensure that guests are made to feel welcome and that all the thousands of details that make the difference between success and failure are promptly taken care of,” Rosenthal says.
More live theater downtown also has helped the Italian Village’s business, particularly since The Village is one of the few restaurants in the immediate area to stay open late—midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on weekends. Long-running shows like “Wicked” and the first run of “Jersey Boys” brought in a nice amount of extra business.
It’s also one of the few Loop restaurants to have live music. A jazz combo plays Frank Sinatra-style music on Wednesday nights till midnight. “A lot of people want live music,” Capitanini says.
Private parties, both social and corporate, also supplement the regular restaurant business. Each of the three restaurants has private party rooms or can close off part of the main room for large groups.
Consistency has been a big reason for the restaurant’s survival, Capitanini says. Chefs keep up with newer trends through daily specials, but many of the old favorites, such as chicken Vesuvio, manicotti and lasagna, remain the same as they always were.
Consistency trumps trendiness every time
Steve Dolinsky, food/lifestyle reporter for Chicago’s Channel 7 ABC affiliate, says, “It’s about consistency. You can have all the trendiness in the world, but people want to have something they are comfortable with. The Capitaninis have figured out what works in Chicago.”
Dolinsky credits the family’s ability to keep track of their regular customers for their continued longevity. He recalls a former captain who knew everybody who came in and even remembered their children’s ages. “That went a long way,” he says.
“There is something for everybody, from pasta to pheasant. They are keeping things comfortable and casual. It’s always top-of-mind for Italian downtown,” says Dolinsky.
“People come here for things we have always had,” Capitanini says. “They are still the core of our business,” Capitanini says. Many customers, like the owners, have been eating at the Italian Village for generations.
Owning the building also has helped the family keep the business alive. It’s one of the few remaining low-rise buildings in the Loop on the southern edge of the financial district.
“No one has offered me enough money for it, although it’s not really about the money,” Capitanini says.
Some special events are in the planning stages to celebrate the 85th anniversary later this year. There will be a special lunch menu of $8.50 specials, a thank-you reception and some charitable events. The biggest event will be the annual Ferrari event, where local Ferrari owners display their cars on the street, closed to traffic. Each year the event raises about $10,000 for a local children’s hospital and the Inspiration Café, a non-profit restaurant that provides job training to unskilled jobless people.
The restaurant also gives away nearly 2,000 holiday meals a year to the needy through Catholic Charities and supports the performing arts with donations and dinners. Capitanini says that her dad raised her and her siblings to take care of others. “It’s all part of our responsibility as individuals to give back,” she says.
As time goes on, Capitanini hopes her daughters, now 17 and 15, will one day continue in her footsteps. Her older daughter already works there part-time and has expressed interest in going into the family business.
Operating a family-owned restaurant in the right way definitely is an advantage, Rhapsody’s Zanella says. Even though he considers Vivere a competitor, he appreciates the competition. “The more restaurants there are in the Loop, the better,” he says.