The Salamone family has spent the past 30 years serving impeccable food at Francesco’s Ristorante. Discover how these Sicilian natives took their business from a pizzeria to a fine dining establishment.
On Oct. 10, Franchesco’s Ristorante will have more to celebrate than just its 30th anniversary. For the Salamone family and staff, this year is a time to commemorate the countless relationships, unforgettable memories and delicious meals Franchesco’s has made possible for so many. The past three decades have brought plenty of changes, as the Salamones have worked hard to perfect their family-owned and -operated Italian fine dining establishment, 7128 Spring Creek Road, Rockford.
“What started out as a pizzeria has slowly evolved into what we have today,” says Benny Salamone, co-owner and longtime restaurateur. “We do a lot of different things I think people don’t realize.”
The elegant 22,000-square-foot venue extends far beyond its upscale main dining room, lounge and patio. On any given day, this Rockford hotspot hosts corporate events, meetings and private parties in its many state-of-the-art facility options. The restaurant’s relaxing ambiance, frequent live entertainment and sleek modern decor with Old World Italian flair makes Franchesco’s a premier destination for many family and business gatherings. Whether it’s for less than 10 guests or up to 400, Benny, wife Kim and their four daughters work with a large staff to welcome every guest as one of the family. But at the heart of every occasion is, of course, the food.
“Our menu is built upon the authentic, Sicilian recipes that my mother and father-in-law used from the old country,” say Benny. “It’s all in the way our food is prepared. Our dishes are a work of art when you get them on your plate. But you have to try it before you understand why we have one of the best-quality menus in northern Illinois.”
The traditional Italian entrees, appetizers, salads and sandwiches are some of the most favored menu mainstays, including the eggplant siciliana, baked lasagna and chicken parmesan. However, the miso seabass has become one of the most popular draws to Franchesco’s; the wild-caught Chilean seabass is topped with a red miso glaze and julienne vegetables above a bed of sake rice. The signature slow-roasted prime rib comes from the top 3 percent of the national market, with all other steak options exclusively using Angus beef and USDA choice cuts.
A carefully crafted beer and cocktail list complements any meal, with one of the area’s largest wine selections of international bottles and affordable deals by the glass. Every meal at Franchesco’s is meant to impress with careful presentation, service and fresh ingredients.
“Nothing on our menu is simply bought and put on a plate, with one example being our port wine sauce that we use on all of our steaks,” says Benny. “We fill a 90-gallon kettle with 100 pounds of veal bones, water and fresh roasted vegetables, and cook it for three days to make 6 gallons of sauce. This is something that you cannot buy. It’s one small, expensive part of the dish, but it’s unique to us.”
Even the oil blend for the table bread is specially made. Frank Salamone, Benny’s father and co-owner of the family’s original Franchesco’s Pizzeria, comes into his namesake restaurant every day to hand stir his signature oil blend. He’s one part of an expanding team that’s carrying on long-built family traditions and first-class service.
“Franchesco’s has always been a happy place for our family, and we feel it carries over to our staff and customers,” says Michelle LaMay, general manager and daughter of Benny and Kim. “Whether it’s for a laid-back drink with live music or a celebratory meal in the main dining room, there really isn’t another local venue that does all the different things that we do.”
Beginnings as a Pizzeria in Cherry Valley
Originally, Salamone family members didn’t plan to jump into the restaurant industry when they moved from Aragona, Sicily to the United States.
After a few years at the Gunite Corporation in Rockford, Benny began working at local pizzerias to support his growing family. He moved to Whitewater, Wis., in 1980, to co-start his own pizzeria, Salamone’s Pizza, with his uncle. But when his dad and brother, Charlie, approached him with the idea to start a new pizzeria in Cherry Valley, Benny couldn’t say no to rejoining his loved ones back at home.
“We were very busy when we first opened, and we were sitting in the back office together after our first week when I looked at the calendar and saw it was Oct. 17,” says Benny. “I pointed it out to my dad and Charlie and said, ‘Look, we opened right on Oct. 10,’ which was the 20th anniversary to the day from when we arrived in New York City together. It was completely unplanned but incredible, once we realized it. It became an even more significant date for us.”
Franchesco’s Pizzeria and Lounge was a pioneering restaurant that helped transform the Cherry Valley Mall area from a quiet block to a bustling shopping and dining destination. For 22 years, the family grew its loyal customer base and honed many of the authentic Italian pizza, pasta and entree recipes still used at Franchesco’s today.
When Walgreens approached the Salamone family to buy the property in 2008, each member viewed it as an opportunity for change.
“We all really struggled with the decision because it was something we all loved,” says Benny. “But my brother Charlie was gaining success as an auto broker and my father was getting older. I, on the other hand, had brought my four daughters into the business, and we all wanted to continue with it. We decided to pursue a bigger vision.”
Benny gained the financial support of longtime customers and family friends Tom and Denise Larson to create the new location. After less than a year of designing and construction, the new Franchesco’s Ristorante opened its doors on May 18, 2009.
The next generation of Salamones were able to build the structure of their shared dream from scratch. Using ideas from other exemplary restaurants and their knowledge of area diners, Benny and his girls wanted to create the premier fine dining and banquet space they knew Rockford needed.
“We saw how people were traveling out of town, spending extra gas and time, to find a nice, upscale restaurant, so we wanted to create that right here in Rockford,” says LaMay.
The Salamones brought in Chef Dan Schmika from Chicago to help design and manage the kitchen and offer new culinary ideas to the menu. Even through changes in staff, Benny has always overseen the kitchen production to ensure consistent quality and presentation. Today, Juventino Salazar serves as executive chef for a kitchen that can serve up to 700 diners at a time.
“We tend to overstaff here so that our food is always served in a timely manner,” says LaMay. “The moment it’s on a plate, it’s on a tray and out to a table. From the main line to our runners and servers, we’re always firing on all cylinders; it’s a very well-oiled machine.”
The Salamones made sure to include several room option sizes for private events, including a Grand Ball Room, Frank’s Room, the Tuscan Room, the Corporate Room, Casa di Anna and the Wine Room. In particular, the Tuscan Room features saved memorabilia from the Franchesco’s Pizzeria establishment, complete with an original mural re-installed on the north wall. Many rental options come with JBL modern audio equipment, chauvet lighting and plasma TVs for presentations.
Live music and entertainment is regularly hosted in the main dining room, patio and Frank’s Room every week. No matter the day, it seems there’s always something happening at Franchesco’s.
A Family Business for Generations to Come
Three decades of building a strong foundation have led to exciting opportunities for the restaurant. Last June, Franchesco’s opened a new breakfast and lunch eatery centered around fresh, local and organic sources at the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford.
“It was probably one of the best moves that we could have imagined,” says Benny. “Our lunches were struggling a bit here, so when David Anderson approached us with the idea to open Fresco, Michelle was the one to convince me we could move our lunch operation over to the Anderson Japanese Gardens, one of the best tourist destinations in the country.”
Fresco, meaning “fresh” in Italian, features sandwiches, salads, soups and traditional breakfast fare within the visitor center and its patios above the gardens. Jacob Ziegler, an employer at Franchesco’s since he was old enough to work, was the ideal person to lead and oversee the new restaurant as its general manager.
“When thinking of the Japanese Gardens, most think relaxing, refreshing, bright, an escape – we try to pair our food with that image so visitors get the ultimate experience,” says Ziegler. “We also try to offer what Rockford doesn’t have. From our quick serving time to our seasonal juice bar, we’ve created a niche market to serve our diners.”
Franchesco’s completed a refresher course as part of its 30th anniversary activity. After a training consultation with Lettuce Entertain You, the staff reinforced its top-quality customer service and attention to detail. A subtly revamped food and drink menu reflects rising trends and incorporates more fresh, organic local ingredients.
Superior service and quality food can come with some misconceptions, though, such as Franchesco’s having a strict dress code and expensive prices.
“Our original goal when we first opened Franchesco’s was to build one of the finest restaurants in the region and still maintain affordable pricing for our local clientele,” says Benny. “It’s important to us that we never forget how we got this far and the longtime customers responsible for our overall success. We have done our best to meet those goals and feel we have successfully achieved them.”
The Salamones plan to throw an official celebration for the Oct. 10 anniversary date, which will be open to the extended “Franchesco’s family.”
“At the end of the day, the most fulfilling reward is seeing the joy on people’s faces,” says Benny, “Especially whenever I hear, ‘You made our day special.’”