For anyone living in Michigan City, Albano's Villa holds significant importance on the community. While Albano's history is a popular tale of risk, reward and the passion for innovating and pursuing dreams, the tales of innovation and risk taking have fallen to the wayside next to their menu offerings.
For Albano's owner Jim Albano, these family stories hold a deep importance to him, as they are a road map of success. The success that has kept the Albano's franchise alive and well since 1957.
"The history is available on our website as it's a very important part of who we are," says Albano. "However, it doesn't completely discuss how much my dad wanted to always own a restaurant."
The story goes, that Jim Albano Sr. made the sudden decision to open his own restaurant along with his brother Russell. One day while their mother left the home for a week, Jim and Russell sprang into action, selling Russell's car as collateral to take out a $1,500 loan and using the loan to purchase cooking supplies and an oven. The duo then proceeded to tear down the walls separating the kitchen and the dining room, paint the rest of the walls green and then open for business.
Once their mother returned, she came home to the house she didn't recognize, and in place of a living room, a fully functional restaurant ready to serve Michigan City.
"After my dad opened the restaurant, he quickly realized that running a restaurant was more work than he bargained for," says Albano. "However, his mother wouldn't let him quit. He turned the house into a restaurant, so he was forced to not abandon it."
For Albano, running a restaurant was one part of his job, as he often took on multiple roles as not only a restaurant owner but an innovator and observer of current and future food trends.
"My dad was always on the lookout for the next big trend in food and the takeout industry," says Albano. "He saw and created things that would end up becoming huge later on."
One of those was frozen pizza, which he made and sold to customers and formed a devoted fanbase for the at the time oddity. Another creation he brought to Albano's which would eventually develop into a menu mainstay were his now famous tacos.
"The story goes that my father was visiting Chicago one day and came across a guy selling tacos on the street. He had never had a taco before but once he tried it he instantly became a fan," says Albano. "He asked the man for the recipe and came back to Michigan City excited and determined to make tacos. People think it's odd that an Italian food restaurant offers tacos, but because of my father, he was one of the first to bring them to Michigan City."
Along with innovative new foods and menu items, Albano also brought major innovations to the technical and delivery side.
"We bought this checkered cab that would end up being our delivery vehicle, but was also had a driver that had access to a radio," says Albano. "If you had a Motorola radio, you could essentially call in and place an order, it was the first delivery system in Michigan City."
As the years went on, and Albano's became a mainstay, their involvement with the community deepened sharing some fun moments and at times, humorous mishaps.
"We were always involved in the big parade," says Albano. "However there was one year we made a Leaning Tower of Pizza float, and our driver ended up not paying attention and damaging our float. People may remember the float fondly but they didn't see the scramble behind the scenes to have it repaired before it went in front of everyone."
These incidents weren't just limited to public appearances, as there were also memorable incidents that took place in the restaurant.
"One time, my father was repairing something in the attic and ended up falling through the ceiling onto a table and customers having dinner below," says Albano. "Needless to say, it was a surprise for them and the meal was on us."
Tradition is something that is not only cherished but earned through years of hard work and earning the trust of the community. Albano's Villa has lasted through generations as the premier places one goes to not only have a delicious meal but to know that the customer was always on their mind and the desire to keep them coming back extended beyond good food and quality service and into the realm of innovation.
"My father never stopped looking for how to serve people best, through food and technical methods," says Albano. "Whenever we would go on vacation, he insisted that we stop at every single hole-in-the-wall place to try their food and pizza, just to see how it tasted and how to make ours even better."
While innovation was and still is alive for Albano's the balance of simplicity was also kept intact, the simplicity of good food made with pure ingredients that have been a part of Albano's since Jim and Russell tore down their mother's walls years ago.
"Keep it simple," says Albano. "Our food is delicious and yet not made with anything you can't find in your own cabinet."
Photo by Cragin Spring