Restaurant Profile: Meet a chef who went from his family’s diner to Chicago’s elite, and now returns, to lead his own family-operated eatery.
Chef Vito Olszewski opened this authentic Italian eatery, at 1620 N. Bell School Road, Rockford, in May 2011, but he’s no rookie to the restaurant game. He’s been in the business for 31 years – right in Rockford for most of them. His grandparents, and then his parents, owned and operated the Auto Inn, where he also worked, from his teens until it was sold in 2001.
Olszewski then studied at Chicago’s Le Cordon Bleu Cooking & Hospitality Institute, becoming a chef in 2003 – the same year he won the James Beard Foundation Scholarship. He worked in downtown Chicago for the next three years, both in the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Building, under Chef Patrick Sheehan, and as a personal chef.
“I cooked for some very famous people,” says Olszewski. “I can’t name anyone, because I had to sign confidentiality agreements, but there were city and government politicians, performers, athletes. It was a great job, and I gained a lot of experience.”
Olszewski was respected at the Signature Room and in demand as a personal chef, but his dream was to open his own restaurant, in his hometown. “Patrick told me I was crazy if I didn’t do it, but I was scared,” he says. “I knew I could never get the prices here that they pay in Chicago.”
But Olszewski was still based in Rockford, and his family was there. When the space on Bell School Road became available, everything just fell into place.
At Vito’s, Olszewski is executive chef, taking care of all things culinary, and son Adam is manager, covering staff, bar and front of house. Adam worked at Maciano’s Pizza & Pastaria in Rockford for a few years, before attending business school and then joining his dad at Vito’s.
Olszewski uses family recipes, adding his own touches here and there. His mother, Barb, makes all of the sauces, as well as the restaurant’s signature meatballs, fresh by hand each day. “We use local-sourced ingredients when we can,” he says.
Olszewski’s signature dish is Conchiglie alla Sarda, shell pasta with ground sausage, served in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce with peas and pecorino cheese. Other customer favorites: the filet mignon sandwich, especially at lunch; lasagna; and – what else? – spaghetti with Barb’s homemade sauce and meatballs.
Desserts, like tiramisu, spumoni cheesecake and cannoli, are also made fresh daily, but the selection varies depending on the mood of the chef. “I make what sounds good to me that morning,” Olszewski says with a grin.
Vito’s has an extensive wine list, including an eight-bottle reserve list, and does offer a cork fee. The bar provides a good selection of top-shelf liquors, and Adam offers daily drink specials along with signature cocktails, like an espresso martini and a blue lagoon margarita.
Olszewski is proud of his staff. “We treat our employees well, and they work hard,” he says. “We provide regular training, and we explain the dishes and let them taste them. They can’t sell the food if they don’t know how it tastes or how it’s made.”
Décor is warm but upscale, the walls displaying black-and-white family photographs. One of the hallmarks of the warm atmosphere is the way the Olszewskis mingle with their customers. “Meeting people is my favorite part of the job,” says Olszewski. “I know my customers, and I give them what they want.”
“People enjoy coming in, because it’s so warm and friendly,” says Barb. “We acknowledge them, ask about their families, and we’re so happy to see them.”
The dining room and bar have seating for 90, and a private room for meetings and parties has already been booked for several events.
“My goal was to offer a fine dining experience in a casual atmosphere, with great service,” says Olszewski. “I’ve been around long enough to know to bring the best I can to my customers.”
“It’s like nothing you can get in Rockford,” adds Adam. “It’s the closest Chicago experience around.”
Vito’s serves lunch Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; and Sunday brunch from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. ❚