NESTLED IN THE THEATER DISTRICT OF LINCOLN PARK, neighbored by big names Alinea and Boka, is a simple little brick house whose red awning says Trattoria Gianni. Since 1988, that brick house has watched Lincoln Park evolve from commercial factories and abandoned buildings to luxury properties and fine dining.

“There’s so much history here. There used to be a cleaners here and a little store in the front,” owner Gianni Delisi says of the current restaurant. “It [took] over a year and a half of remodeling and construction.”

Delisi moved to Chicago in 1973. “We wanted to come here and have a different life. I came with my dad [who] stayed for a few years and then went back to Italy. I stayed.” Delisi reminisces. “All my life I worked in restaurants. In Sicily, we had family restaurants. My dream was always to open a restaurant.” And like the old lore of the hardworking immigrant, Delisi worked hard to pursue his dream. “I went to school and worked as a busboy… working in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, any job.” Finally, after 15 years of bussing at restaurants around the city including Italian Village, Delisi came across the opportunity to open his own restaurant.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen,” he indicates to the walls covered in celebrity photos—much like Italian Village’s. “Things were changing in different neighborhoods. I thought this was a great location—close to the lake and close to downtown.”

 

 

TRATTORIA GIANNI HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL since it opened. “There were quite a few Italian restaurants when we first started. But we served different things.” By different, Delisi refers to taking old family recipes from Sicily and bringing them to life with ingredients often imported from Italy.

Rigatoni with sundried tomatoes, which has been on the menu since inception, is a dish inspired by Delisi’s childhood. “I remember my mother would cut [tomatoes] and put them out in pieces” to air dry in the sun on a laundry line. “There was no one else who had that.”

“I’ve always tried to be ahead of things and I’ve gotten very lucky,” Delisi reflects. “Every year, we go to Italy to see what’s new. We’re blessed and fortunate to have a lot of companies now that bring products from Italy as well… olive oils, fresh cheeses, pasta.”

Every year, Delisi travels with his wife (also from Italy) and daughter to Italy. When it comes to these research trips, “the process is usually to just enjoy my family. We go out, we visit other places, we go to restaurants and vineyards. There’s always something to see.”

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On his latest trip, Delisi went to Sardinia and explored the meat dishes available there. “You’d think an island like that, surrounded by the sea, would be specializing in fish, but actually it’s meat. Then we went to Sicily, which is where we get our fish. The taste of [Trattoria Gianni’s] calamari or fresh tuna is so different because it comes straight from Sicily.”

Delisi also attributes his longevity to consistency in what he offers to his customers. “I’ve been ordering meat from the same people for thirty years,” he says.

Gianni Delisi (left) with wall of celebrities

Consistency and beautiful Italian products aside, a great deal of Trattoria Gianni’s success is its approach to competition. “My philosophy is,” Delisi leans forward, seriously, “If you do your work right and don’t look at what others are doing, you’ll be successful. We don’t feel the need to change who we are based on what other people are doing. Just make your product good. Everyone has their own market. Our market is original Italian.”

In a city where everything is constantly changing—his neighbors Alinea and Boka have both done major renovations in the last few years, and even Steppenwolf Theater is now in the food business, too—there’s comfort in knowing that some places stay constant, serving hearty bowls of pasta made like the owner grew up eating in Sicily. “There’s not many like us left,” Delisi shrugs and looks around proudly at the patio, packed with diners, some of whom have been coming as long as he’s been here.

HP

 


Sabrina Medora is the founder and author of Food Fiction Project on Instagram as well as the writer for Behind Chicago Food for ChicagoNow. In her spare time, Sabrina enjoys hot yoga, reading, exploring big cities, collecting Harry Potter books, and binge-watching competitive cooking shows like Top Chef and Chopped.


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