Home of the Gondola

by Bill More

Avanti’s ---

Imagine a restaurant that will be celebrating 50 years……….

Avanti’s in Peoria was started by Albert Zeller. He came to America from Switzerland as a very young man, in 1959.  He is now 76 and his restaurant is 50 years old. Do the math. 

He started at age 26.

Albert started as a cheese maker at Walnut Cheese Company, Walnut, Illinois. 

He then formed a new business in 1964 selling frozen pizza, Ginos’ Pizza.

He grew this business from 200 pizzas per day to 5,000 pizzas per day. 

Can you say “success”?  Only two years later, 1966, he purchased Lardano’s Restaurant in Peoria, adjacent to Bradley University, on Main Street. The name quickly changed to 

Avanti’s, meaning “forward” in Italian. There was no stopping him at that stage.

I met with Albert’s son Stephan, 45, and now co-owner of the Avanti’s Ristorante group.

They have 3 stores in Peoria, one in East Peoria, and one in Pekin. Close relatives own an Avanti’s in Bloomington as well and work under license from Avanti’s. 

Basically born into the business Stephan has been fully involved since 1992 after graduating from the University of Denver in Restaurant Management. How appropriate. 

I did ask him when he un-officially started and he admitted he was bussing tables at 

Avanti’s at age 12 – no surprise here. 

Face it --- Avanti’s is now a Peoria institution. Their famous Gondola and famous sweeter than normal bread has been popular now for literally 50 years. It is the mainstay of the business. It was the ‘trend’ if you will from when the business got started, and it remains as popular today as it was then. The recipe has been tweaked but never too far from the original.  Their menu remains true to its past but has recently been enhanced, offering more options to the customer for customized pastas dishes and customized pizza toppings. Take a look at the menu and you can see the step-by-step process by which you can get a pizza or pasta plate made JUST for you, JUST the way YOU want it. 

Since it is their 49 year in 2015, they are offering monthly specials through Facebook, and you can see them any day. They recently offered their Gondolas for $3.49 and a drink for 49 Cents, to celebrate their 49th year. It was so popular they nearly ran out of their famous bread and had to get more ready PRONTO. There will be huge specials next year too. 

I asked what the food trends were when Stephan started: Gondolas and Bread.

I asked what is a hot food trend today: Gondolas and Bread. 

Yes their menu offers lots of additional varieties and options but the mainstay has remained. 

His crystal ball looked a bit clearer for the future. He sees smaller sized restaurants becoming even more popular since they provide a more intimate environment and owners don’t need hundreds of people to keep the place full. He has more plans in store but was mum on the ideas to share with the public. Stay tuned…….

He told me that he is to this day surprised at how popular their Gondolas and Bread remain with the Peoria Tri-County customers, and he is pleased too. He did admit, as did other restaurant owners, that finding and keeping employees is a challenge. Too many applicants seemingly want it all and want it now with little effort on their parts. He has paid his dues and expects his employees to do the same ---- keep up a positive attitude, maintain eye-contact, engage the customer, show them they are appreciated. He has no disappointments with the profession but recognizes that it is hard work all day every day. 

There is no escaping that fact in this business, but as a people person himself he loves it.

Stephan offers sincere thanks to all of Avanti’s customers over the first 50 years and hopes they will continue their loyalty over the next 50 years so he can retire a happy man.