On March 4th, 1829, newly inaugurated president Andrew Jackson threw an open house party that grew so raucous that White House guests were eventually lured outdoors by servants carrying tubs of whiskey and juice. Continuing a tradition begun by predecessor Thomas Jefferson, the seventh president of the United States traveled to the executive mansion to celebrate his acceptance, intending to be welcomed by a select group of celebrities, politicians, and citizens. To his surprise, however, this was not to be the case. For, walking into the vestibule of the house that would be his for the next eight years, the sixty-two year old commander-in-chief viewed a situation similar to what director John Landis depicted in Animal House, the 1978 college film classic: guests perched on top of White House furniture peering above the heads of the swollen crowd of 20,000, mud-caked sofas, and small parties of locals rummaging through the presidential estate, searching for the new leader. Luckily, once the distraction of liquid refreshment was offered, most adjourned to the White House lawn, leaving behind a colossal mess of broken dishes, shattered crystal glassware, and the dirty-sock scented stench of cheese, which remained in the carpets for months afterward.
Although Mr. Jackson’s well-meant gesture of opening his house publicly proved disastrous to the residence, it is rare for similar occasions to end with such a cyclonic effect. In fact, most yield polite results, since open houses mean to emphasize a structure’s merits. Elementary schools prop classroom doors open annually for parents to view their children’s workplace. Property owners looking to sell their homes happily welcome visitors who are interested in a potential purchase. Last, long-lived dining establishments are amenable to open houses, because their front doors continually swing open to encourage any interested party to step into the vestibule to look, smell, and hopefully taste what each has to offer.
“Our regular customers?” asked Italian Village maitre d’ Frank Sgro, who has welcomed guests to the Monroe Street eatery for nearly fifty years.” I’ve got a few who are coming tonight who have been coming here for forty-five years. They’re from Indiana and come for the best of all theater.” He smiled.” It’s perfect people like that that we have, a lot of families in their second or third generations. Even people with names you might recognize, like the Pinellas, who are in their third or fourth generation. You get the right to say,’ I know more about your family than you, ‘cause I knew your grandparents!’”
Continuing to elaborate on the many acquaintances with whom he has grown familiar during his tenure, Frank began to wax on those whose features would be publicly recognized, too.
“We’ve had a lot of athletes,” he stated, raising his brow.” We used to get all of the Blackhawks many years ago. And, even before that, we used to get ‘em when there was only six teams, ‘cause they used to travel by train and come here when they got off of the train in the afternoon. They would eat and drink before going got the stadium.” Remembering the appearances of other sports heroes next, Frank shone a spotlight on those who make their livelihoods playing either football or baseball.” Ozzie Guillen had been coming here for a long, long time after games, sometimes with seven, eight, nine people. And The Bears players used to do that every Sunday when Singletary was playing. After games, he used to bring fifteen, twenty people, and we used to have to push all kinds of tables together.” The congenial host laughed.” But the bussers knew that we used to get a lot of people in for dinner after the games, so it was easy to ask,’ Do you mind if we move you to another table? We have a bunch of Bears players and are trying to put [them] together.’” Then, winking, the host added, “If you ask people in a nice way, they’re willing to do anything.”
Bridging the gap between physical and political sport has not proven a challenge for Italian Village patrons, either.
“Mayor Richard Daley’s been coming here for many, many years. So has the governor…” Frank paused to correct an error in referring to impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich,” the ex-governor,” he laughed. “But we’ve had quite a few over the years. Governor Ryan used to come here all of the time, and Vrdolyak came during the days of Harold Washington. I remember Vice President Al Gore was here with Mayor Daley, because they had to close the street down for five or six hours. But I used to get a lot of them. To me, they were beautiful people.”
Still, one particular political figure raced to the front of the list as one of Frank’s most beautiful, if not for the figure that the guest struck, then for his significance to the country in which The Italian Village personality was raised, Italy. Around the time of Frank’s initial hire in 1961, the front door of the restaurant swung open to admit “The May King”, King Umberto ll, the last king of Italy, whose month-long reign ended with a June 2 referendum that led to the country’s monarchal discontinuation.
“He was in exile at the time,” my subject commented, referring to the former emperor’s banishment to the Cascais Municipality in Portugal.” He had been flown in by pilots who flew in 1933 at the World’s Fair in Chicago. [They] had all become generals by that time. So the plane flew here, let the guys off, and they had dinner- right here! About twenty of people! “Then, Frank broke into a wide grin.” They wanted to go into the kitchen at the end, so I let them go into the kitchen. And I got a picture with him, right there.” Frank pointed to the space on the wall where the framed photo still hangs.” I was nineteen years old at the time, and I still have the picture.”
Still grinning, the maitre d’ then recalled another, more recent occasion during which others from Italy happened upon the eighty-six year old establishment.
“As a matter of fact, I had two [guests] just the other night,” he reminisced.” I recognized that [they] were Italian, so I started talking to them. I found out that they were two senators from Rome [who] were over here and decided to drop by to see the place. When they saw ‘Italian Village’ outside, they said,’ Let’s go inside and see what’s cooking!’”
Like many others before them, the senators were so comforted by what they received that a gracious email was sent to the restaurant shortly after their return to Rome. Since then, customers have continued to pass through the same front doors, where they not only enjoy the discovery of “what’s cooking,” but become a part of the open house on Monroe Street that has welcomed so many beautiful people since opening in 1927.