Regional Dining Guide

Toni’s of Winnebago Serves Fresh Fare with a Friendly, Small-Town Vibe

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A large menu of fresh food awaits at Toni’s of Winnebago. See what makes this whimsical Italian eatery a favorite for dining and catering.

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Michelle Princer’s personal touches are everywhere at Toni’s of Winnebago.

The 49-year-old chef/owner has transformed the former Toni’s Dariette into a relaxing, small-town eatery that serves seasonal dishes and offers a catering business that doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

Princer bought the business nearly 20 years ago, when the space was known more for ice cream, pizza and spaghetti, and the décor included red and yellow polka-dot carpet. Slowly, she started remodeling and introducing food inspired by her training at culinary school in Charleston, S.C.

“We started getting really busy,” she recalls. “I was putting my food on the table but still using their menu with the $2 medium and $3 large spaghetti. Thankfully during that time, I had the catering to fall back on, and that helped pay the taxes and the employees. We’ve gone through a lot and we’re still here. I’ve got employees who’ve been with us almost the entire 20 years.”

Today, the restaurant walls are decorated with whimsical Italian artwork and family photos (including Princer’s prized vizslas, a breed of sporting dog; in her spare time, she serves as president of the Vizsla Club of Illinois).

Twinkling lights twist through vines above some of the tables in the 75-seat dining room. The lounge seats another 25 people.

“The food evolves, but it also stays the same,” says Princer. “People return consistently for the Winter Pasta — penne pasta mixed with sautéed shrimp, fresh garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto and artichokes.” The luscious 16-ounce char-grilled pork chop served with buttery spaetzle and either asparagus or Brussels sprouts with bacon is another favorite. But in the spring, when a forager brought her 10 pounds of hard-to-find morels, she naturally highlighted the mushrooms in several specials of the day.

“Our specials are not a reflection of us trying to get rid of something that’s old,” she says. “They’re a reflection of what’s happening in the garden. Sometimes, a special becomes so popular that we start incorporating it into the menu.”

A small garden sits just outside Toni’s, although Princer’s busy schedule has kept her from planting as much as she wanted to this season. She did manage to plant rhubarb, a variety of herbs and spices, Swiss chard, tomatoes and hot peppers. Eggs are delivered year-round from three suppliers in the area. Fresh spinach and green onions are sourced locally. Princer grew up on a dairy farm in Michigan, so she looks for meat suppliers who use sustainable farming practices and she tries to use certified Angus or Hereford steaks.

“People trust what we put on the plate, which is important, and they’re willing to try things even if they’ve never had them before,” she says.

About 25 percent of Toni’s business is catering, which allows Princer to have a big menu and to keep the food fresh. What that means is that “we can have a big dinner at the fairgrounds with chicken, pork and veggies, and the cooler will be empty by the end of the weekend, meaning we’re turning the food over and what you’re getting on your plate is really fresh.”

Catering gigs range from graduation parties and weddings to customer appreciation parties for local businesses. She’s served a wedding breakfast on a Friday night, prepared Polish sausage and sauerkraut at a wedding to honor a relative who’d passed away, and cooked samosas and other goodies for an Indian wedding.

“I don’t want to say it’s an adrenaline rush, but I like the challenge that every site, every house is different,” Princer says. “The only problem with catering cool parties at cool houses is that I want to redecorate my house every time I see something new that I like.”

Princer has now lived in Illinois longer than she did in Michigan. Reflecting on her nearly 20 years at the helm of Toni’s, she’s pleased with what she has achieved.

“I’ve got a great set of friends here, a great group of employees,” says Princer. “I’d say we keep our drama to a minimum and we genuinely like each other most of the time.”

Toni’s of Winnebago is located at 508 Elida St. in Winnebago. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. and Sat.; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fri.; and 4 to 9 p.m. Sun. Learn more at tonisofwinnebago.com or on Facebook.

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