Meet a creative restaurateur who grew up in his father’s tavern, and has successfully grown his own restaurant, inspired by a favorite college eatery. Step inside and see these newly refreshed Rockford restaurants.
One of the best indicators of a restaurant’s success is people seeking its food, even after they’ve moved out of town. “We get tons of testimonials like that,” says Frank Savitski, owner of Panino’s, a fixture on Rockford’s dining scene for 23 years. “Parents stop in to take food to their kids in college. I’ve shipped orders to former locals all over – to Minnesota, even Alaska!”
Panino’s is famous for its homemade bread, baked fresh daily from scratch. Since opening in 1990, Savitski estimates that, among his three locations, he’s sold more than 4.5 million loaves. “By the 25th anniversary, we should hit 5 million,” he says.
Panino’s has long been identified as an Italian restaurant, but the menu selection is much wider. Last year, Savitski and wife Mary Ann spruced up the two restaurants, at 5403 E. State St. and 2725 N. Main St. With motifs of blue, gray and white, the dining rooms are clean and modern, with custom wall art featuring menu items.
“We renovated to emphasize our diverse offerings in addition to Italian,” says Savitski. “We have gourmet sandwiches on both homemade and whole grain bread, salads, fresh-baked desserts.”
Diners can order items such as the California Deli – turkey, ham, mozzarella and American cheese, lettuce, tomato and pesto mayo sauce on whole grain bread – or the Chicken Cranberry Salad, with chopped chicken breast, mozzarella cheese, chopped walnuts and dried cranberries on Romaine lettuce. All salads and pasta dishes are served with Panino’s homemade bread.
Two signature creations are the stars of the menu, however: the Panino, and the Panizza. “The Panino is 17 inches long, on homemade bread, with ham, salami, American cheese and lettuce,” Savitski says. “It’s not like any other sandwich around. It’s simple, but that’s what makes it so good. Customers don’t tend to add much to it.
“The Panizza is our homemade bread, topped with sauce, mozzarella cheese and anything you can get on a pizza, and grilled. Each is made-to-order, and it’s unlike anything you can get anywhere else. We’ve trademarked the name, in fact. We sell, on average, about 200 Panizzas a day, and about 250 of all our sandwiches.”
New to the menu are baked desserts: red velvet, German chocolate and French vanilla cupcakes; cannoli; lemon bars; cookies and tiramisu bars, all made from scratch in the kitchen.
Savitski came into the restaurant business naturally. “My dad owned West End Tap, and I was helping out at a very young age,” he says. Savitski attended Illinois State University in Bloomington, where a favorite among college students is an Italian joint called Avanti’s. Savitski loved their fresh-baked bread.
After college, he returned to Rockford to work for his father, who had become ill. After his father’s death, he opened his first place in 1983, and then Frank’s Sports Page in 1985. In 1990, a friend from Savitski’s days at ISU opened the first Panino’s on 20th and Charles streets, modeled after Avanti’s; Savitski bought it shortly afterward.
Now, Savitski manages 23 employees between the two restaurant locations and a booth at the BMO Harris Bank Center. Many are entry-level jobs taken by college students, but turnover is minimal. “We have one employee at North Main who’s 28, who’s been with us for 13 years,” Savitski says. “Another is on the 10th year. I think the kids come back because my wife and I keep it family-oriented and a fun place to work. We take the time to teach ‘people skills’ while we train employees, and then we give them responsibility and autonomy, so that they can gain confidence and grow.”
While much of his time is taken up with administrative chores, Savitski loves to jump on the line. “I’d make dishes all day long – that’s my favorite part,” he says. “Sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I’ll just start cooking, and it’s like therapy.”
Resting on their laurels isn’t part of the Panino’s owners’ character. “The future’s the big thing,” Savitski says. “We’re working on growing in Rockford, opening another restaurant somewhere around the northeast corridor. We’re also looking into franchising.”
Customers who dine at Panino’s can expect quick, professional service and affordable prices, Savitski says. “I want guests to see that we’re locally owned, and that the food we serve here is something they can’t get somewhere else. Quality product is our No. 1 goal, and we achieve that because we’re a hands-on, family-run operation.”