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Lessons from Chicago's First Family of Italian

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The second- and third-generation owners of the Windy City's Italian Village Restaurants’ share their secrets to business longevity.
By Laura Zolman Kirk April 2018 Sapore

The newest restaurant in the Italian Village Restaurants group, Vivere, is over 30 years old. The oldest, The Village, is more than 90, opened in 1927 by Alfredo Capitanini and claims to be Chicago's oldest Italian restaurant. All three of the Capitanini family’s restaurants—also including La Cantina—are located in the same building in Chicago on three separate floors. Each boast their own decor and cuisine style, chef, and kitchen, but all share a single wine cellar with many unique vintages.

The first restaurant, The Village, offers a traditional Italian menu—lasagna, spaghetti, chicken Parmesan—catering to the restaurant’s generational guests. The decor involves a blue ceiling with Christmas lights to mimic stars and individual booths set up like buildings in a small Italian village.

La Cantina, which feels like a cozy wine cellar decorated with barrels and bottles, offers nearly the same comforting fare as The Village a floor above it, with the addition of steaks on the menu.

And Vivere, which was started by the third generation to take on the family business, strives for modernity with upscale decor and a menu serving contemporary Italian dishes including handmade pasta and seasonal ingredients.

After Alfredo, his sons Frank and Ray and daughter Ave took on the business. And after the second generation, Frank’s children, Al, the younger Frank, and Gina stepped in. Gina is currently the only Capitanini still working at the restaurants. “For me, it’s a sense of pride of continuing my family’s legacy,” she says.

And, while the elder Frank, now 85, is retired, he still drops in every now and then to greet guests. “The success of being in the business 90 years is you have to give customers the quality of food, service, and ambiance, and you have to have the employees work as a team,” he says. Frank and Gina share how their family’s ventures have maintained longevity in the ever-shifting world of restaurants.

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Vivere strives for modernity with upscale decor and a menu serving contemporary Italian dishes.

Involved owners and exceptional service

Ambiance is key for any restaurant, and each Italian Village restaurant gives off its own unique vibe. But, what really creates atmosphere, Frank says, is the commitment of his family and staff to exceptional service. “When customers come in, they know there is a Capitanini around. If they ask for us, we’re there,” he says.

“It’s our personal approach,” Gina adds. “We treat our guests like family as well. We probably know more about our customers than most people do in the industry. I think that really makes a dinner. Our customers realize they are going out for dinner, but it’s almost like they’re coming to someone’s house.”

Loyal and creatively fulfilled employees

Some of the employees working at Italian Village Restaurants have been on staff upwards of 40 years. “People have been loyal to me, and I’ve been loyal to them. We make a great team,” Frank says. Happy employees equal happy customers.

One way the Capitaninis have kept up with trends and their executive chefs loyal, Gina says, is by allowing chefs creative freedom beyond the restaurants’ basic menu. “No chef wants to come to a restaurant that’s already status quo, and they can’t put their stamp on it,” she says. So, chefs flex their culinary creativity on specials and for events.

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The Village was opened in 1927 by Alfredo Capitanini.

A storied wine cellar

One of the first things to set Italian Village Restaurants apart was the addition of a sommelier and a wine cellar developed by Frank’s brother Ray in the 1980s. “A lot of these vintages are vintages that you can’t even get, priced very affordably,” Gina says. All three restaurants use the same cellar, which includes about 1,100 wine selections totaling over 20,000 bottles of wine. “We have one of the largest wine cellars in the Midwest,” Gina says.

“We were one of the first restaurants in Chicago to have a sommelier,” Frank adds. Today, the sommelier updates the wine list, educates the staff, and helps guests select the right bottle.

Events

The sommelier also works wine dinners, which has created activity over time, says Frank. “We bring in the producers who make the wine, and they showcase their wines and talk about their vineyards.” This has been a change in the industry since he’s worked it, Frank says.  

Other events like festivals dedicated to ingredients such as garlic, tomatoes, herbs, etc. and charity events allow Italian Village chefs the opportunity to be creative, too, and drum up business for the restaurants.

No family feuds

Frank and Gina both stress that, when working with family, it is best to designate a role for each person.

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and no one’s good at everything,” Gina says. “When the three of us were working here, my one brother was more financials; he had the MBA, so that was really his strong suit. My other brother was more operational in terms of the kitchen. If someone didn’t come to work, he could be the chef. I would consider myself more of a people person: I would do most of the hiring and also work the floor.”

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Frank and Ray Capitanini.
Village Restaurants
Gina Capitanini and Joe Deininger.

Their designated duties, Gina says, just kind of fell into place, but she does attribute their success to it.

Frank has a similar story: “My sister was the accountant and the book keeper. My brother was marketing, staff, and wine. I took care of the operations, hiring the kitchen staff and waiters.” Frank and his siblings got together to discuss the goings-on at the restaurant, but specialized in these different niches. “You always have to work as a team,” he says.

Embrace technology

Over 91 years of business, Italian Village Restaurants has seen a lot of change, especially on the technology front. From hand-held checks to a computerized system, to a complete restaurant overhaul in Vivere, the Capitaninis have embraced change despite knowing that it might jostle their long-time staff and customers. “Some people wanted to quit, because they were so used to the system being that way,” Gina says of the switch to a computerized system.

Looking to the future today, Gina doesn’t see much changing in the physicality of the restaurants. “We will continue to prosper and be part of the landscape of Chicago and people’s tradition here in the city,” she says. “We don’t have any plans for expansion outside of this building.”

But they have added more carry-out business through Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Delivery Wow and do room service to a couple hotels, too. They even sell their sauce at a couple Whole Foods Market stores in the area. “If we’re going to expand, those will be the outlets we’re going to expand,” she says.