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Trattoria Gianni Still Thriving after 25 Years of Serving Authentic Italian

By Paul Biasco | May 30, 2013 6:50am
 Gianni Delisi and his wife, Susanna, are celebrating not only their restaurant's 25th anniversary this year, but also the day they first met, which happened to be inside the restaurant.
Trattoria Gianni
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LINCOLN PARK — It's been 25 years since Gianni Delisi opened up his dream restaurant on Halsted Street.

And in a few months, he will mark the 25th anniversary of the day his future wife walked in the front door.

For Delisi, the block has changed a great deal over the past 25 years, but the authentic Italian dishes that made their way from his mother's kitchen in Sicily to his menu have not.

When he opened Trattoria Gianni at 1711 N. Halsted St. in 1988, his was the only restaurant on the barren block.

Since then some of the city's — if not the world's — best restaurants have moved in, including Alinea, Balena and Boka.

Delisi sticks with what he knows, and that has allowed his restaurant to thrive.

"I always say to myself, keep doing the right things and do the things that you know how to do,"  Delisi said over an espresso this week. "Don't be worrying about what your next-door neighbor is doing."

Delisi moved to Chicago from Sicily when he was 16, finished high school in two years, graduated from Wright Junior College in another two and saved up enough cash to finally open his restaurant in June 1988.

He wanted to cook the same food that he was raised on, and some of those dishes such as the rigatoni alla Nocerina, which he learned from his mother, remain on the menu.

Gianni's favorite things from Italy were missing in America when he got off the plane in Chicago as a 16-year-old on a hot June day. He moved to Lakeview with his family, and eventually settled in Lincoln Park, where he still lives today.

"To sit outside, eat outside, go for a gelato and a walk in the piazza," he said. "Where are you going to go? Michigan Avenue?"

That was in the 1970s.

"My dream had always been to open my own restaurant," Delisi said. "In 1987, I came to the building, it was empty. This was an area that was up and coming, but still not very known yet."

On Nov. 8, 1988, shortly after the restaurant opened, Delisi's future wife, Susanna, got off a plane from Italy and headed straight to Trattoria Gianni.

"A friend of mine told me, 'Let's go eat at this restaurant, I want you to try it,' so he picked me up at the airport and we came straight here," she said.

It was her first stop in Chicago, and years later, after working as a waitress and then manager at the restaurant, she ended up marrying Gianni.

"Things happen sometimes for a reason," Susanna Delisi said.

Just last year, the restaurant received the "Ospitalilita Italiana Quality Seal" from the Italian government, marking it as a true Italian restaurant owned and operated by an Italian using all Italian ingredients.

It was a major honor that about 20 restaurants in Chicago have achieved, Gianni said.

Over the years, Susanna's influence from northern Italy has rubbed off on Gianni's southern Italian style.

Think risotto with strawberries and salmon.

"There are things we have been making for years and years that at first no one else was making," Gianni said. "We would kind of tease each other with what tastes better."

Last year, Gianni's dream of adding a patio to the restaurant to give it an even greater authentic Italian feel became reality.

When it opens in the summer, he needs extra help. His brother flies in from Italy each summer to help with the tables.

"It's been fortunate to keep it in the family," Gianni said.