The Windy City’s Italian Village Keeps It All In The Family

From left to right: Gina, Frank Sr., Frank Jr., Ray, Alfredo - seated Ave Capitanini. Circa 2000.
From left to right: Gina, Frank Sr., Frank Jr., Ray, Alfredo - seated Ave Capitanini. Circa 2000. Alan Klehr

Capitaninis’ lead Chicago's historic restaurant for 85th year

Capitaninis’ lead Chicago's historic restaurant for 85th year

“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.

Next: Teamwork has proven to be a big advantage



The only restaurants with food as good as my mom's. The nicest family I ever met as well.


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