Joey Canova and chef Bernie Harding.

Joey C’ Cucina: Not Your Typical Italian Restaurant

Discover a Rockford eatery built from a dream and some of Rockford’s great tastes, and see why this little storefront has become a big hit with a mature audience.

Joey Canova and chef Bernie Harding.
Joey Canova and chef Bernie Harding.

Joey Canova is no stranger to the food industry. In the early 1990s, the Rockford native worked in management for various restaurants before he went to work in sales at LaMonica Beverages. Then he decided to make a move. “I always wanted to get back into the business and open a restaurant and bar,” he says. “I left a good job with a steady income, but I didn’t want to be on my death bed one day saying, ‘I wish I had tried it.’ It was time to do it. My wife, Michelle, was very supportive.”
Three years ago, Canova opened Joey C’ Cucina & Cocktails, 2583 N. Mulford Road, Rockford, site of the former Angelo’s restaurant. “I wanted to open a small neighborhood restaurant and bar that appealed to a more mature crowd,” he says. “I wanted a place that offers quality food at affordable prices – a place where everyone knows each other and feels comfortable.”
Joey C’ is warm and cozy. There’s a main dining room with one big-screen TV and a bar area with eight more TVs. The restaurant seats 125 comfortably. “There are two distinct rooms,” Canova says. “There’s a quiet dining room, and then there’s the bar area that’s more lively for people who want to watch sports or converse with friends or co-workers.”
The environment is fun at Joey C’, but it’s the food that sets it apart. Canova recruited Chef Bernie Harding, former owner of Cafe Greco, to head up his kitchen. “He’s meant the world to this place,” Canova says. “The recipes he’s brought over – from his salad dressing to his Sicilian steak – have been staples in this town.”
Canova also brought his own recipes that include his parents’ and grandparents’ favorite dishes. He and Harding have worked together to refine the menu, which includes signature items like Lemon Pepper Grouper and Steak Sicilian, along with an assortment of sandwiches, salads, fresh seafood, lasagna and a variety of pastas. Most importantly, the food has to be fresh. Canova likes to change up the menu every few months. “I like to tinker with the menu so customers get fresh and original dishes, and the chefs can show their creativity.”
Joey C’ has daily specials including tacos on Tuesday, Sicilian night on Wednesday, all-you-can-eat fish fry on Friday and slow-roasted prime rib on Saturday. Save room for desserts like salted caramel cream puff or a giant, warm chocolate chip cookie with spumoni.
The bar is always spirited, especially on Sundays, when golfers arrive after a day on the course to watch more golf on TV, or football in the fall. And regulars know bartender Ange Russo, who prepares a number of specialty drinks, as well as wines and beers.
Joey C’ welcomes birthday parties, rehearsal dinners and other special events. Canova, a volunteer member of the First Tee board of directors, hosts a celebrity bartending night where proceeds support the local nonprofit organization. Canova has made his chefs available to do in-home cooking for customers from time to time, and catering is available throughout the year. DJs, karaoke and live music often take place in the bar area.
Canova is expecting a busy summer. He’s renovating the outdoor patio, expanding lunch hours and taking part in several community events, such as 100 Men Who Cook and City Market, where he and his staff will market the restaurant’s homemade salad dressing and other creations. “We never rest on our laurels,” Canova says. “We plan to keep on growing and striving to exceed our customers’ expectations.”
Joey C’ is open Sunday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.