Del Rio: The Best Kept Secret of Chicago-land Restaurants

Del Rio's Entrance Accompanied by Antique Signs

Mike Phillips

There are so many restaurants that people say are “the best.” In my opinion, Del Rio Restaurant really is the best. It is a well-kept secret that has yet to reach a mass audience. There aren’t too many restaurants that have stayed up in business for more than 80 years, and done so without using advertisements. Del Rio Restaurant, however, has made such accomplishment and that is why many patrons consider it to be the best Italian restaurant there is. No need for flashy advertising. Del Rio Restaurant relies on one important aspect that many restaurants have forgotten, just serve great food and the rest will take care of itself. This has been the proven business model for Del Rio Restaurant, and with nearly a century in business, it seems to be working. Well, this is my gift to the world because I have an interview with the owner, the visionary behind all that is Del Rio, Bill Pigati.

How does Del Rio Restaurant fit into the community?

Del Rio has always been in the same location. It is a staple in the area. Different generations of families have been coming here for all those years. The older generations have passed it on to the following generations. I’ve lived in the area a good deal of my life, so I understand what people around here appreciate, which is good food and a family atmosphere. The diners aren’t so much our customers, but friends who come by every now and then for some food.

So where are your recipes from? Are they family recipes?

Yes they are, I used to sit with my Grandmother when I was around 3 or 4 years old, and just cook with her. Luckily I have a good memory and I was able to remember the recipes and how to prepare the foods.

Has Del Rio Restaurant always been in your family?

No, the first owner had it for three months, and around three months into owning the restaurant they sold it to my grandmother. Del Rio was originally a Tango-themed restaurant when it opened in the 1920’s. The man who originally opened the restaurant was enamored with Deloris Del-Rio, who was a Mexican movie star. So when it first opened there used to be an area in the back of the restaurant for a band to play tango music. The reason the restaurant was sold was because of the married couple that owned the restaurant. The wife was worried that all the young ladies would try and steal her husband. So the wife sold it to my grandmother in 1923 or 1924, in essence to keep her husband.

Is Del Rio Restaurant more Northern Italian cuisine or a Southern Italian cuisine?

It is more of a Northern Italian cuisine, but to be exact it is more modenase (a style of cooking that comes from the Italian town of Modena). It uses more crème sauces, and the rice is always with saffron. There is also a lot of veal and a lot of fresh fish used in this style of cuisine. There are very little desserts, those come more from the Southern part of Italy, like Sicily.

A Humble Entrance to Del Rio

A Humble Entrance to Del Rio

Everyone loves the performance of opera singers that Del Rio Restaurant has during the Holiday season. Where did the idea of having the opera singers come from?

I used to work with the symphony orchestra in college, and used to take singing classes. I always really enjoyed singing and the opera. When I first took over the restaurant from my parents, I would bring in singers on Friday nights…unbeknownst to the diners. We would take the stage at 9 and it was our job to entice the audience and get them interested in the singing. I eventually had to stop because the restaurant would start to fill up at 6 o’clock and people were just waiting for the singers at 9. So I had to stop because people would just wait around for hours.

How long have the opera singers been coming to Del Rio Restaurant?

Since 1970, I wanted to continue the singers, so I figured for two weeks out of the year, I would have four opera singers come in around the Holidays and sing. It gave me the ability to enjoy the singers while also allowing a special experience to happen for all the people at the restaurant.

Del Rio Restaurant is pretty much known by word of mouth which for years has been passed on from one generation to another. Why so little advertisement?

Because we are so well known through word of mouth, and we have a fairly long list of returning friends who come to eat regularly, we figure we don’t need to advertise. The advertising is just a hassle. The review magazines have a tendency to play up big name chefs, or owners or size of the restaurant, we feel the Del Rio can stand up on its own, and it has for the last 80 some years.

Where did the décor of the restaurant come from? Has it changed much in the last 10 or so years?

We’ve had the same type of white-checkered tablecloths since the 20’s, and the wood on the walls is from 1948. A friend who used to come in and eat put the walls in. His grandkids still come in to this day, so we leave all the wood in as homage to him. The bar is a family heirloom; it was my grandfather’s bar.

What would you consider to be Del Rio Restaurant’s specialty?

It’s hard for me to say, it’s like asking someone which child is their favorite. I’m always changing things because I want them to be perfect. An aspect that I really like about our restaurant are the almonds. The idea of the almonds come from back in the old days, people use to throw almonds at weddings, as a form of celebration. The almonds we have are the same color as confetti that’s used. So we have that almond dish as a symbol of celebration, anything people want to celebrate, the almonds are there for them to do so. Back to your original question, people really love our gnocchi entre. (type of pasta)

The People's Favorite - Gnocchi Dish

Any thoughts about expanding Del Rio Restaurant? Or possibly opening up another restaurant?

Not opening up another restaurant if that’s what you mean by expanding. We plan on expanding the first floor of the restaurant so more people will be able to come in.

In your opinion, what makes Del Rio so special to so many people?

We have a great staff, extremely nice and they treat you as a friend not a servant. I also have been everywhere we get our food. I’ve been to New Zealand for the shrimp…we’ve been getting our meat from the same guy for 40 years and the chocolate [we carry] comes from a small place in Brazil. I have inspected everything. I think that’s why it’s so special. People know they’re not getting cheap ingredients. I take pride in making sure the ingredients we use are the best. As my grandmother used to say, “In this world nothing stays the same, everything changes and you better get better.” I think that’s a good motto to live by, I’m always trying to keep Del Rio the best it can be.

Check It Out:

228 Green Bay Road

Highwood, IL

847-432-4608

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