It began with family recipes, serving neighbors as if they were at the dining room table. Forty years later, this couple has built a loyal following.
At Leombruni’s Italian Village, 110 W. Second St., Byron, Ernie and Mimi Leombruni serve up fresh, authentic pizza and classic Italian dishes, all homemade using family recipes. Ernie cuts his own steaks, grinds and stuffs the sausages and makes the pizza dough, and Mimi makes the sauces, soups, desserts, side dishes, entrees – just about everything – from scratch. They use fresh herbs and veggies grown in their garden, even the eggplant for the eggplant parmagiana.
This year, on May 11, the couple marked their 46th wedding anniversary, and on May 1, the restaurant’s 40th year. It opened when they were 25 years old – and it wasn’t even their idea. Friends Bill and Rosalie Krall from Byron came for dinner, and Bill told Mimi that her cooking was so good, she needed to open a restaurant, and he knew just the spot.
“We were already running a deli in Rockton,” Mimi says. We had two children. I was pregnant with our third. I thought, ‘We don’t have time to open a restaurant.’ And we didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. But Bill was determined to get us to Byron.”
Krall located a small corner spot for them, across the street from their current location, below a hotel. They began with just carry-out, but when the building’s owner tasted the food, he insisted that they open a sit-down restaurant. He cleaned out a space adjacent to the carry-out and outfitted it with eight tables.
Opening was a giant leap of faith. “We talked with the building’s owner, who told us, ‘Feed everybody like you feed your own family and friends, and it will be OK,’” Mimi says. “That’s what we did, and it’s what we do today – cook for our friends and neighbors.”
On opening night, hungry diners lined up around the block to get in, and the Leombrunis ran out of food. “Everyone was patient, friendly and welcoming that first night,” Mimi remembers. “We had such fun. It was a great, working party for us. We’ve always felt welcomed and embraced by Byron.”
The restaurant has a staff of about 11 and can accommodate large crowds: 40 in the front, 30 in the back, 30 to 35 in the adjacent lounge, and has a private room with space for 35.
The menu features authentic Italian Customer favorites include Mimi’s rice balls, an appetizer made from a risotto-style recipe; her lasagna; and Ernie’s calzone. “No one makes a calzone as good as ours,” he declares. Also popular: veal picatta over linguine, eggplant parmigiana, pizza, and Mimi’s cream sauces, which are made to order. “Cream sauces can’t stay simmering and stay good,” Mimi says. “Just about everything is made to order. The red sauces and soups are the only things we make ahead of time.”
That commitment to quality has made Leombruni’s a staple in Byron, but the couple has suffered tragedy, as well. In 1986, eldest son, Marco, 17, died in a car crash. In 1991, three days before Christmas, a careless smoker in the Blackhawk Hotel sparked a fire that destroyed their first restaurant. “We’ve had some sad times,” Mimi says. “But once you come out, you’re stronger and better. Our friends and neighbors were very supportive then, and we always help them through bad times. We hold fundraisers, and everyone shows up, no matter the weather or the economy. Byron has very loyal people.”
Ernie was the first person Mimi met when she arrived in the U.S. in 1960. Ernie came from Rome, Mimi from Sicily. Both grew up in south Rockford and attended St. Anthony’s Church. “I think the reason for our successful partnership, in business and marriage, is our common upbringing and core values,” says Mimi. “Those common roots, that solid background, help to build a solid foundation.”
Leombruni’s has always been a family affair. Ernie’s mother, Pia, first helped Mimi in the kitchen; now, it’s his sister, Annette. All four of their children, Marco, Anthony, Robert and Lisa, pitched in at an early age. Family life is also represented in their guests. “Kids who first came with their parents are now bringing in their kids, or grandchildren,” Mimi says.
The couple is thinking ahead to retirement, but until they find the right buyer, they’ll keep cooking for their neighbors and friends.
“It’s heart-warming and gratifying to see entire families, three or four generations, sitting around a table,” Mimi says. “What keeps us going is our loyal customers.”