By Michael Sewell
When Ferdinand Rosati ditched New York in the early 1900s for the more favorable pizza haven in Chicago, pizza wasn’t actually the focus of his traditional Italian restaurant on Taylor Street.
But Ferdinand, an Italian immigrant, welcomed guests with a free appetizer that he called “Pizza A’Olia,” a flatbread-style dish with homemade sauce and a thin layer of cheese. It was so popular that pizza became the focus of the restaurant, and since then Rosati’s Pizza has grown into a large family business that will celebrate 50 years in 2014.
His son, Sam, opened a second restaurant in 1927, and in 1964 the third generation of Rosatis launched the original Rosati’s Pizza in Mount Prospect.
“All 11 Rosati’s brothers and sisters worked there. It was really a family affair,” said Marla Topliff, the current president of Rosati’s. “They loved it. They stayed open till 2 in the morning. They absolutely loved being a family business.”
The four brothers who are often the face of Rosati’s pizza—Al, Dick, Fred and Ron—are still involved with the business, as are the younger generations of the Rosati’s family. Since Topliff joined the business 14 years ago, as someone from outside the family, she said she’s seen tremendous growth continue. There were 60 Rosati’s locations when she joined, and now there are close to 130 in 14 states, Topliff said. And that doesn’t include 51 Rosati’s locations operated separately, stemming from when brother Rick Rosati opened his first location in Arlington Heights in 1970.
“All of the growth has been organic, it came from people who said they wanted to franchise,” Topliff said. “We have a proven brand with a proven system.”
Rosati’s success over the past five decades is largely attributed to the company’s ability to adapt and change while sticking to the traditional Italian recipes that made it a hit in the first place. Rosati’s has always been innovative—Topliff said pizza delivery wasn’t as common as it is now, but Rosati’s has done it since the start. Rosati’s were always carryout locations, but the company has since created more pizza pubs, which were popularized when Yorkville Rosati’s owner TJ Banning tried it.
“He took over an existing pizzeria and put in seating, and we had so much fun with it we decided to keep doing it,” Topliff said. “We’re opening family friendly places for people to come and share their meals, watch a game, have a beer, do a trivia night. We’re doing more to get the community involved.”
Of course, after 50 years many Rosati’s locations have become ingrained in the communities they serve. Besides getting involved with local high schools, youth sports and fundraisers, Rosati’s is something the neighbors want to be there. When the Niles location burned down in 2011, Topliff said there were serious thoughts about cutting losses and moving on.
“But the community was asking for us,” Topliff said. “I live in Niles. The night we had the fire, someone called me and I was devastated. The people, you have to listen to them.”
That’s helped shape the menu—adding more items like salads and unique regional-style pizzas along the way, and exploring gluten-free options. Even when Ferdinand opened his restaurant in the early 1900s, pizza wasn’t the focus until the people spoke up about his great Pizza A’Olia. But as Topliff said, “Our goal is feeding people,” and Rosati’s has done that largely by sticking to the basics.
“I put our pasta right up there with some of the finest Italian restaurants here,” she said. “And our pizza, we have a great product. Everything is made from that same original recipe. Everything is fresh and handmade.”
The history at Rosati’s goes so far back that the company is still trying to pinpoint an exact date the original was opened in 1964. With 11 siblings who helped open the first restaurant, memories vary a bit. But she said there will likely be local celebrations and prizes and that they would keep the company in the loop.
“It’s really exciting,” she said. “They never dreamed back in ‘64 that the company was going to do this. Family businesses are tough. But you put these 11 people who loved each other so much and loved what they did so much, they had fun. They enjoyed it. They said it was hard work, but they wouldn’t have traded it for the world. That dedication and the passion for the business still shows today.”