From chow to ‘Ciao’: End of an era for iconic Frankfort restaurant
BY JAIME ANGIO Correspondent August 5, 2012 7:40PM
Owners Bob and Harry D'Ercole pose for a photo at Enrico's Italian Restaurant in Frankfort, Illinois, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. The restaurant is closing in August to make way for a huge grocery market. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 7, 2012 6:04AM
The historic structures that Frankfort boasts are part of the reason the village claims to offer “1890s charm.”
The Grainery, Frankfort Bowl, Frankfort General Store and Old Plank Trail Tavern all are synonymous with the town. But another iconic Frankfort building not far from those downtown staples soon will disappear, forever changing the landscape of LaGrange Road near U.S. 30.
Enrico’s Italian Restaurant will close its doors next week after nearly 40 years as a go-to Southland dining spot. The building, once famously attached to a caboose used as a dining room, will be razed by the end of September to make way for a food market.
The owners, brothers Harry and Bob D’Ercole, are looking for another location. But in the absence of a guaranteed reopening, memories are being stirred up along with the final batches of Enrico’s famous meat sauce.
Harry D’Ercole said he is moved by “just hearing the impact that one little Italian restaurant has had in making memories for so many families.
“The baby showers that occurred here, the wedding engagements ... we look at our staff and how many people that met and married here,” he said. “And to think that a little business that we started could affect so many people in a positive way is just a wonderful feeling.”
The restaurant, 21027 S. LaGrange Road, will serve its last guests Aug. 15. With word out about the closing, it has been “crazy” busy for weeks. But the restaurant isn’t taking reservations; guests should call an hour ahead to get on the wait list.
Feeding the memory banks
Many who grew up dining often at Enrico’s are returning to relive cherished memories: sitting in the caboose dining room (which was removed in 2006), tossing the pizza dough given to kids to play with as they waited for food, kiddie cocktails with two cherries and an umbrella.
They remember being treated as special, too.
“When my daughter Jennifer was in a highchair, we sat in this particular booth right in this area, and she dropped a drink on top of the pizza,” Ernst Jolas, of Mokena, said during a visit last week with his wife Mary Joe. “The owner was there and he said, ‘I’ll take care of that’ and he took the pizza and came back a few minutes later. And since that day, we’ve been coming here.
“It (closing) would be such a loss for us, unless there is a new one. We keep asking to find out where it’s going to be.”
Ken and Martha Stevens, of Palos Heights, said they have been going to Enrico’s weekly, on Tuesdays, for 30 years.
“We’ve sat in this booth for the last 15 years,” Martha Stevens said. “They know when we come in, this is our table.”
“And the food is excellent,” Ken Stevens said.
Carol Vogler, a 40-year Frankfort resident who visits about once a month, said she is saddened by the end of an era.
“I used to come here with my husband and he passed away 21 years ago, but I still come with my children and sometimes I come by myself,” she said. “I just love their food, and the staff has always been great. My favorite is the Italian sausage sandwich — with red sauce, green peppers and cheese, and their salad with the creamy garlic dressing. It’s delicious.”
What started out as a 500-square-foot place turned into 8,000 square feet over the years, on a property encompassing nine acres.
It all started with pizza and beef sandwiches.
“Those were our two signature things when we first opened,” Bob D’Ercole said. “It was carry-out only.”
Fast forward a year to 1975. With one waitress and four tables set up, the first plate of spaghetti with the signature meat sauce was served.
“My father developed the recipe for the meat sauce,” Harry said. “It’s a highly guarded secret. A lot of the recipes are Harry Sr.’s. He was a self-taught chef, an excellent cook.”
The recipes aren’t going into retirement yet. Re-opening elsewhere remains a distinct possibility, perhaps with a smaller menu.
“We did look in Mokena,” Harry D’Ercole said. “But our roots are here in Frankfort and our customers know us in Frankfort, so our goal is to stay at this time. We have our radar on a couple of spots.”
The brothers, who also are partners in 3Ds Development, are selling the current property to Bradford Development, which hopes to break ground later this year on a Mariano’s Fresh Market.
They’re also trying to take care of employees until they plot their next move.
“Our management team will continue work at an abbreviated level even during the down time, because there is a lot of things we need to work on to get ready,” he said. “The workers in the restaurant, we are trying to get them temporary work. ... anytime we see a job listing, anything we can find that we think might be a fit for one of our people, we’re working on it.”
Jana Anderson, Enrico’s service manager for six years, anticipates Aug. 15 will be a rough day.
“We used to come here when we were little. I worked here 26 years ago and then came back, so it will be really different,” she said. “It’s going to be an emotional, hard day. I hope to come to the new place and start all over.”
“There are so many people that want to be here that day, I’m scared,” Harry D’Ercole said. “We have no idea what to expect. We are informing our staff that we’re going to stay open as long as it takes to serve the last customer.”
“I’m looking forward to it with excitement and sadness at the same time,” Bob D’Ercole said. “I know I’m going to come down here and hang out and talk to people and have a couple of drinks.
“It will be a very surreal feeling when that door closes. Like almost the ending of ‘Cheers,’ when Sam says, ‘I’m sorry, we’re closed’ and locks the doors. It’s like a bit of your life locked up in there.”