Italian cuisine

The Capitanini family has been serving Italian cuisine to Chicagoans for generations

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CHICAGO — The Capitanini family runs Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant. For nearly 94 years, the restaurants of the Italian Village have been offering Italian cuisine accompanied by 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 would give me the menu and I had to go to the table and hand out the menus,” Ray Capitanini said.

Ray Capitanini, 85, has fond memories of helping his father Alfredo greet restaurant customers as a child.

“We are the first to bring manicotti which is a pancake filled dish with cheese inside the sauce, we were the first to do chicken vesuvio, without peas,” Capitanini said.

He added that the dish was probably on the menu when Ol’ Blue Eyes held their engagement party here.

“Sinatra was here, he had his party downstairs Vivere, we had Luciano Pavarotti,” he said.

“We’ve had famous people like Neil Diamond or Bon Jovi and it’s not our policy to release that, but somehow people find out,” Gina Capitanini said.

The Italian village opened its doors almost a century ago, when Alfredo Capitanini emigrated from Italy. He came to America for a new life and to escape Italian rule under Benito Mussolini.

Today, there are now three restaurants under one roof. 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’re generational, a lot of families are,” Gina Capitanini said. “I hear stories all the time.”

One of the stories involves the rumor that Al Capone was a regular at the Tuscan-themed dining room.

“We have names on the stand, convent, post office, post office, and there were supposedly Capone dined there was called the pragione which means prison. Very on point for him,” said Ray Capitanini.

In 1955 Alfredo opened La Cantina, a second restaurant one floor below. In 1990, grandchildren Al and Aina opened A Vivere on the main level.

The three restaurants offer guests an array of Italian cuisine under one roof.

“We always thought that if someone walked through the door, they might have a sandwich, a pizza, a Vesuvius chicken, a veal or maybe a duck or game, so we capture all of those different market segments,” Captainini 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 first had to work outside the restaurant.

“My father wanted me to work for someone else. I worked for the Northern Trust Bank a block from here for about three and a half years and finally I was like, ‘OK, did I pay my dues?’ said Gina Captainini.

The Capitaninis not only serve the public with their food, but they also invest in the city – 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, and then we kind of steered it towards people in need,” Capitanini said.

Although they support many charities through their grandparents’ foundation, their biggest charity event is the annual Ferrari Festival whose proceeds support Lurie Children’s Hospital.

“The reason we kind of started with Children’s Memorial was because when my son was born he was very sick and he stayed at Children’s for about two weeks,” Gina Capitanini said. “It’s dear to my heart.”

Like most small businesses, Italian Village restaurants have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped them from forging ahead, preparing the next generation to take over.

“It was really difficult, stressful, you know? but we intend to stay and we intend to keep the Italian village going,” said Gina Capitanini.

Currently, the restaurant in the Village is open as we emerge from COVID-19. They hope to open the remaining restaurants very soon.

The village
71 W. Monroe St.
Chicago, IL 60603