Chicagoans love their pizza, reportedly eating even more of the Italian pies than residents of Rome. They also love a good story.

In the case of the South Barrington-based Rosati's Authentic Chicago Pizza, market sales speak for themselves, with a projected $34 million for 1995. And the family Rosati, owners of 50 stores in the Chicago metropolitan area, has a history going back to the turn of the century that is filled with intrigue, scandal and stories of fortunes lost and remade.


"We don't have too many notes, but this is what we've been able to find out," said unofficial family historian Geary Rosati.

The pizza legacy begins with Ferdinand Rosati, an Italian entrepreneur who immigrated to the United States in 1906 and briefly ran a restaurant on Coney Island. He closed it in favor of a more lucrative olive oil import business based in Chicago and Naples, but he disappeared with the money--and a beautiful French woman--after the death of his wife.


Ferdinand's son Saverio, who was born in America but raised in Italy, was left penniless, but rebuilt the import business. He arrived in Chicago in 1926--more than a decade after his father's disappearance--and opened the first Rosati's Pizza at Madison and Crawford (now called Pulaski) on the city's West Side.

Although that business didn't last long, Saverio set his five sons--Al, Ronald, Richard, Bill and Fred--off on a path that would lead to Rosati's Pizza becoming what they say is now the largest regional pizza chain in the Midwest. The family, which settled in Barrington and currently has relatives scattered about the northwest suburbs like anchovies on a pizza, owns or franchises a total of 63 outlets in six states, and the company plans to have 70 stores in 10 states by the end of this year.

The rampant expansion of pizza chains is being seen all across the country, said Gerry Durnell, director of the National Association of Pizza Operators in Louisville and publisher of Pizza Today, an industry publication. "Overall, the climate is excellent, and regional companies like Rosati's have a head start to a grand success," he said.

Rosati's is the largest regional pizza chain in the Chicago area, and ranks fourth overall in the market after the big three national chains of Domino's, Little Caesars and Pizza Hut, they say. "People ask, `Is the market too crowded? Is it saturated?' But pizza today is more popular than burgers," Durnell said.

"Chicagoans tend to take pizza for granted," said Ron Stockman, president and CEO of Rosati's Franchise Systems Inc., pointing out that thousands of pizzerias dot the local landscape.

Stockman, 48, of St. Charles is one of the few non-family members in the business and was hired by the Rosatis in 1992 to lead the company's franchise division. The goal is to have a total of 200 carry-out and delivery stores open across the country by the end of the decade.

"We are experiencing a surge in growth because we occupy a niche that virtually no one else is filling, and that is quality and variety in a takeout/delivery setting," Stockman said.

But it's still very much a family business. The first carry-out and delivery Rosati's was opened in 1964 at 1629 Busse Rd. in Mt. Prospect. Four of Saverio Rosati's five sons were involved, and today 25 of their children are also active in the Rosati's restaurant business.


"We knew we were the best," said Richard Rosati, one of the original set of brothers who opened the Mt. Prospect store. Richard, 55, lives on a farm in Harvard and runs a Rosati's in Rockford.

When the original store opened, Mt. Prospect was a fledgling suburb. "We grew with the suburbs," Richard Rosati said. "The people who first moved out there bought from us, and now their children are our customers."

Before opening the restaurant, the Rosati brothers ran a pizza supply business, Tolona Pizza Products, which is still owned by Fred Rosati. The Chicago company was one of the first to develop and sell frozen pizza crusts in the 1950s, and serves markets in North America, Europe and Japan.

But a family squabble in the early '60s ended the five brothers' professional relationship, and each set out on his own. Richard Rosati briefly opened his own restaurant, as did Al Rosati, who joined with a cousin to open Alnino's at Cermak and Mannheim Roads in Westchester.

Bill Rosati also opened his own pizza restaurant, but it went under within six months. "That's when my dad said, `Forget it; I'm going to school,' " said David Rosati. His dad studied dentistry and just recently retired from his Franklin Park dental practice.

"I had my first place at 19," Richard Rosati said. "Our dad didn't want us to end up in the business, and we're all in the business. Our kids all did the same thing. We sent them to college and most of them ended up in the pizza business."


The brothers quickly reconciled and pooled their resources to open the Mt. Prospect pizzeria. With no other fast-food franchises to compete with, "they controlled business by taking the phone off the hook," said Geary Rosati, 43, of Kildeer, who now owns and runs the original location his dad Al helped to open.

Within a few years, the restaurant expanded to the adjacent storefront, and booths were added. Other stores soon opened in the northwest suburbs, though only the original and a store in Aurora offer dine-in service; the chain now has expanded to cover a broad range of the Chicago area and is looking at the possibility of opening in downtown Chicago.

"The first restaurant offered the same things as we do now," said Geary Rosati.

"And it is either homemade or made for us," added his cousin, David Rosati, 31, of Oswego. David Rosati owns Rosati's in Aurora and Joliet. "We make our dough from scratch, the meatballs are hand-rolled, and the sauce is cooked for three hours just like you would at home."

The recipes have been handed down through four generations of Rosatis, but Richard Rosati is credited by his nephews with developing the sweet, tangy pizza sauce. "I might have added my own touches, but the recipe is something that was passed down through the family," he said, modestly. "I did a little bit of experimentation, but that's it."

Rosati's offers pizza in traditional thin crust, Chicago-style deep dish and double dough, a Rosati creation that is similar to a New York-style pizza crust but crisper on the outside. Toppings include the typical and the outrageous: Italian sausage, pepperoni, Canadian bacon, mushrooms, onions, anchovies, spinach, pineapples and jalapeno peppers.


According to Stockman, the Rosati family believes in "every product in every bite," and the pizzas live up to the family motto. In the kitchen area of the stores are mountains of chopped mushrooms and green peppers, containers brimming with a mixture of three cheeses, and racks of pizza dough waiting to be hand-rolled. The pizza makers don't weigh each ingredient, but liberally spread toppings by the handful before sliding the pies into an industrial-sized rotating bakery oven.

Pizza prices range from $5.25 for a 10-inch thin-crust cheese pizza to $20.75 for a Rosati's Monster, a crusty, 18-inch pie piled high with sausage, pepperoni, bacon, ground beef, mushrooms, onion, green peppers and green and black olives.

With all the brothers but Richard Rosati retired from the day-to-day running of the business, a younger generation is now in charge and is mounting an aggressive expansion campaign.

"The current generation took over at a young age," said Geary, who started his career at 13. He added that a Rosati is on the premises of the non-franchise restaurants most of the day. "The restaurant management is not left to kids or strangers," he said.

The Rosati empire grew as more relatives joined the business. Today, 25 first cousins own stores and manage all facets of the business, and they've even branched out to other restaurant concepts.

Rick Rosati of Prairie Grove owns Chicago Pizza Authority restaurants in Elgin and Palatine, and family members were involved in the opening of a now-defunct Pasta Lovers restauarant on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Both Geary and David Rosati sit on the board of directors, and Geary is also vice president of the franchise systems division. The original Mt. Prospect store, which is owned by Geary and his brother Stephen Rosati of Woodstock, is still among the top three sales producers in the whole Rosati system.


As more family members became involved and more restaurants were opened, the Rosati name was licensed, Stockman explained. Family members were allowed to use the name commission-free, while others paid a license fee.

"The business is dominated by family," said Stockman. "And there's no substitute for family."

The Rosatis are currently involved in franchises for stores that deal totally in carry-out-and delivery, and the new venture is focused on opening stores outside the Chicago area, especially in the western United States. Stores are already open in Dallas, Denver, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.

"We have a product in a highly competitive market and it's done very well over the years," Stockman said.

Currently, pizza represents more than $25 billion in sales annually in the United States and is expected to double its sales within the next five years, Stockman said.

The franchise concept features an upscale Italian grocery design fronting a carry-out and delivery store. Rosati's provides training at David Rosati's Aurora store, along with advertising and other market supports, and food supplies through the company's purchasing program.


"Family will continue to open up new stores," Stockman said. "But we're trying to take it to a different level . We want to bring on our style of pizza to Anywhere USA and have it be as successful and as delicious as in Chicago."

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