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Eighteen years ago the Monastero family–owners of Monastero’s Ristorante at 3935 W. Devon–decided to hold a contest in their restaurant to give young singers a chance to perform before an audience. To fund the prize–an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy to study opera–they charged their dining clientele a fee to watch the contest. The event proved to be so popular that the family founded the Bel Canto Foundation, a separate organization to run the contest, in 1976.

A few years later a drop in the exchange rate almost brought things to a halt. That’s when the Rouse Company–a developer that operates more than 70 malls throughout the U.S. and Canada–stepped in. They started sponsoring the contest, holding it in 14 new locations at different shopping centers across the country as well as at the restaurant. Ever since, 15 singers a year have gone abroad to study under such greats as Tito Gobbi, Carlo Bergonzi, and Renata Tebaldi.

It’s no surprise that the Monasteros are so inclined to support opera. Joseph and Salvatore Monastero, the brothers who run the restaurant, both sing. Growing up in Philadelphia (where they were born) and Sicily (Salvy still has a trace of an accent), they were discouraged by their parents–who also had musical backgrounds–from taking up opera as a full-time career; after all, World War II was going on and the country was still recuperating from the Depression. “When we started this restaurant next door 29 years ago, my brother used to play the accordion and I would play the guitar and sing: Neapolitan and semiclassical Italian songs, which were very appealing to our audience,” Salvy says. Joseph, meanwhile, sang part-time in the Lyric Opera chorus, and other chorus members sometimes sang at the restaurant. That’s how Salvy met his wife, Elizabeth Fischer, who was engaged to sing in a few operas at the Lyric that year. (She’s now a voice teacher at Northwestern.)

These days the restaurant features music nightly and opera on weekends (6:30 to 9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 to 8 on Sundays). During the Lyric’s season, stars often drop by. Meanwhile, some of the contest’s alumni are fulfilling their promise at some of the world’s major opera houses. Soprano Cynthia Haymon has sung Mimi in La boheme at Covent Garden and Bess in Porgy and Bess at Glyndebourne. Soprano Karen Huffstodt was in a world premiere of Menotti’s Goya with Placido Domingo. Mezzo-soprano Anita Berry appeared in a PBS broadcast of Il trovatore with Pavarotti. But Chicago resident Mark Doss, who’s sung leading roles with New York City Opera, the Paris Opera, and the Lyric, is Salvy’s favorite success story: “A fantastic voice, but what a wonderful man also. We love him as our own son.”

Now that the competition is national, 600 to 700 applications and demo tapes have to be scrutinized, mostly by Salvy and his wife, sometimes by the foundation’s 20-member board of directors. Board members also function as judges, along with other local celebrities like Channel 11’s Marty Robinson and former music critic Tom Willis. Most of the entrants come from the midwest, but the contest is open to anyone; queries come from as far away as Japan, China, France, and Germany.

But this year’s winners won’t get to travel abroad–the gulf war was in full swing when travel preparations were being made, and the Monasteros decided to hold the seminar at Northwestern; it’s been going on since June 28. Under the baton of Steven Larsen, the young singers will give a final recital August 9 at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 1977 Sheridan Road in Evanston. (It’s $10; call 588-2515.) Larsen is resident conductor for the financially strapped Chicago Opera Theater, for which Monastero’s Ristorante is holding a benefit this Wednesday night at 6:30. Featured will be singers appearing in lead roles during COT’s 1992 season, and the big after-dinner treat will be Mignon Dunn, the celebrated mezzo-soprano who normally graces such venues as the Met, the Lyric, and La Scala. Tickets are $100, and you can make reservations at 663-0555.