70 Years, 14 Dining Rooms, and 500 Meals a Day

In the restaurant business, an establishment that lasts five years is considered a major success. That puts the Como Inn, which celebrates its 70th birthday March 7, in a small and impressive group of survivors. “The Como Inn is a phenomenal success story,” maintains competitor Joe Carlucci, who owns several respected Italian eateries including Carlucci and Vinny’s. Located near the rather gloomy intersection of Grand, Milwaukee, and Halsted, the Como Inn is nevertheless one of the city’s largest and highest-grossing restaurants. It’s not likely to win any awards for the most sophisticated cuisine, but it does serve quality Italian American food to a sizable and loyal customer base. And its following developed long before concept companies like Lettuce Entertain You and the Levy Organization arrived on the scene in the mid-1970s. “It’s a bastion of the middle class that is steeped in tradition,” notes Dennis Terczak, renegade chef/proprietor of the considerably more fashionable Sole Mio. “The Como Inn caters to people that don’t give a shit about goat cheese and pancetta.” He’d also argue that the Como Inn’s continued popularity has generated renewed interest in a number of old-world Italian restaurants along Taylor Street and elsewhere.

By all accounts the fact that it’s a family business has helped the Como Inn survive the tortuous twists and turns any restaurant is sure to take over seven decades. “There is a more personal touch when a restaurant is passed through generations in a family,” maintains Carlucci. In 1924 Italian immigrant and former ice deliveryman Giuseppe Marchetti opened a tiny, unprepossessing 13-table storefront restaurant on the inn’s present site. Today the place is a maze of 14 distinct and individually named dining rooms that seat approximately 1,000 people in relative intimacy. Seven of those are banquet rooms; banquets tend to be much more profitable for the Como than its regular meal service.

Giuseppe Marchetti’s four sons all have a hand in running the restaurant, but 59-year-old Joe Jr., a graduate of the prestigious Cornell University School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, is the one in charge of the grueling day-to-day chores. On a recent Wednesday evening he was in constant motion, answering phone calls, greeting familiar faces, and helping with the considerable task of seating hundreds of dinner customers, who begin arriving as early as five o’clock. “I have to do 500 meals a day just to cover my expenses,” explains Marchetti, whose employee roster totals 160. Two of his staff have been at the restaurant for more than 40 years, five for more than 30. Marchetti clearly relishes the family aura that envelops the place. His son plays the piano in the bar, while two nephews work as maitre d’s.

Besides a commitment to good food and service, Marchetti says, the key to success in the restaurant business is marketing. “People need to be stimulated all the time, so we try to create constant excitement with our promotions.” For the 70th anniversary Marchetti is throwing the kind of huge benefit bash for which he has become famous. Proceeds from a Roaring Twenties party at the restaurant March 7 will be split among no fewer than eight local beneficiaries, including the Chicago Dance Coalition, the Chicago Fund on Aging and Disability, Maryville Academy, Gallery 37, and the Villa Scalabrini home for the aged. With a high overhead and lots of seats to fill, Marchetti has become a pro at attracting customers–by, for instance, offering free transportation from the Como to a variety of cultural and sporting events. The inn employs a concierge whose sole job is selling theater and opera tickets to restaurant customers and arranging free transportation to performances and then back to the restaurant. And on a recent night some 300 Bulls fans ate there before being bused to the Stadium. All those dining rooms allow the Marchettis to tactfully segregate the different types of customers. “You don’t want to mix up the Lyric Opera audiences with the noisy sports crowds,” explains Marchetti. “That’s a no-no.”

In 70 years the Marchettis have never opened a second Como Inn or any other restaurant. Joe Marchetti says he needs a “complete hands-on operation” for the well-being of his own psyche. But if the next generation of Marchettis shows an inclination to stick with the business, he doesn’t rule out another restaurant or two. For now, though, he’s more concerned about the neighborhood surrounding the original Como Inn. Marchetti says he has bought some of the adjacent property to try to at least slow the deterioration. “It has always been a battle at this location because the neighborhood was sliding down.”

The Angels-Yonkers Connection

Delay is the name of the game in plans for a Chicago production of Tony Kushner’s epic seven-hour play Angels in America. A source close to negotiations says an announcement about the particulars isn’t expected before the first or second week in March, and the production itself may not open until late summer or early fall. Since it became apparent that the Royal George Theatre would be the show’s most likely venue, its opening has been tied to the fate of Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals’ production of Lost in Yonkers, which has been running at the Royal George since September 1992.

When Chicago producer Robert Perkins and New York-based Jujamcyn Theaters bought the entire Royal George complex last March, the purchase agreement stipulated that Leavitt and Fox would maintain their lease on the theater and cabaret spaces until the end of the Yonkers run or May 1994, whichever came first. Now it looks as if Yonkers may run through May. Notes Leavitt: “If the grosses are there, I will continue to run the show; if they aren’t, I will close it.” Though grosses dipped below $30,000 a week during the recent cold snap, Leavitt says the show has been back in the black since, doing well above $35,000 a week. The show’s recent display ads, however, have included a reference to “final weeks.” Leavitt dismissed as “ridiculous” a rumor that he is continuing to run Yonkers to try to delay the arrival of Angels or to force its producers to book the show into a theater he controls, such as the Briar Street.

The Chicago company for Angels may well turn into the show’s touring company after the Chicago production closes. Perkins and Jujamcyn are said to be busy trying to decide how long a run the show can likely sustain in Chicago given its higher-than-usual ticket prices, its controversial subject matter–AIDS–and its graphic depictions of gay sex. Michael Maggio has been mentioned as one directorial prospect. His availability for a spring mounting, however, is in doubt because of his involvement with a Broadway-bound production of Alex Gersten’s My Thing of Love, originally produced by Steppenwolf. Maggio also is slated to direct the Goodman Theatre’s upcoming production of A Little Night Music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.