CHICAGO — The Capitanini family runs the oldest Italian restaurant in Chicago. For nearly 94 years, the Italian Village restaurants have been serving up Italian cuisine along with memories and tradition. The Capitanini family is one of Chicago’s Very Own.
“I remember I was nine or 10 years old in my little sailor suit and my dad had to seat customers and he’d give me the menu and I had to go to the table and pass out the menus,” Ray Capitanini said.
Ray Capitanini, 85, has fond memories of helping his father Alfredo greet restaurant customers as a child.
“We’re the first to bring manicotti which is a crepe filled dish with cheese inside the sauce, we were the first to do chicken vesuvio, no peas,” Capitanini said.
He added that the dish was probably on the menu when Ol’ Blue Eyes held his engagement party here.
“Sinatra was here he had his party on the main floor Vivere, we had Luciano Pavarotti,” he said.
“We’ve had famous people come here like Neil Diamond or Bon Jovi and it’s not our policy to disclose it but somehow people find out,” Gina Capitanini said.
Italian Village opened nearly a century ago, when Alfredo Capitanini migrated here from Italy. He came to america for a new life, and to escape the Italian rule under Benito Mussolini.
Today there are now three restaurants under one roof. With the Village being the oldest Italian restaurant in Chicago. It’s been on Monroe Street in the Loop since the beginning for three generations.
“It’s such a tradition for so many families, just like we are generational, a lot of families are,” Gina Capitanini said. “I hear the stories all the time.”
One of the stories involves the rumor that Al Capone was a regular in the Tuscan themed dining room.
“We have names on the booth, convent, la post, post office, and back there were supposedly Capone dined it was called la pragione which means the prison. Quite apropos for him,” Ray Capitanini said.
In 1955, Alfredo opened La Cantina, a second restaurant a floor below. In 1990, grandchildren Al and Aina opened A Vivere on the main level.
The three restaurants offer customers an array of Italian cuisine all under one roof.
“We always thought if somebody walked in the door, they could have a sandwich, a pizza, a chicken vesuvio, a veal or maybe a duck or game, so we capture all those different market segments,” Capitanini said.
Alfredo Sr. died in 1988 leaving his three adult children Frank, Ray and daughter Ave to take the helm.
And today the third generation of Capitaninis, Gina and Al own and operate the restaurants. But before taking the reins they had to work outside the restaurant first.
“My dad wanted me to work for someone else. I worked for Northern Trust Bank just a block from here for about three and a half years and finally I was like, ‘OK, have I paid my dues?” Gina Capitanini said.
The Capitaninis don’t only serve the public with their food, but they invest in the city as well — their elders taught them that.
“It started with my grandparents, they were big with the LYRIC Opera and the symphony and all the different cultural institutions then we sort of geared it toward people in need,” Capitanini said.
Although they support numerous charities through their grandparents foundation, their largest charity event is the annual Ferrari Festival with proceeds supporting Lurie Children’s Hospital.
“The reason we kind of started it with Children’s Memorial was when my son was born he was very ill and he was at Children’s for about two weeks,” Gina Capitanini said. “It’s dear to my heart.”
Like most small businesses, the Italian Village restaurants have taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t kept them from moving forward, getting the next generation ready to take over.
“It’s definitely been difficult, stressful you know? but we intend to stay and we intend to keep the italian village going,” Gina Capitanini said.
Currently the Village restaurant is open as we emerge from COVID-19. They hope to open the remaining restaurants very soon.
71 W. Monroe St.
Chicago, IL 60603