On March 17th, 1971, Lou Malnati and his wife Jean opened the first Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Lincolnwood, IL. Lou always thought it was funny that an Italian should open a pizzeria in a Jewish neighborhood on an Irish holiday, but that was just Lou’s style. He wanted his restaurant to be a model of hospitality, a place dedicated to family.
Opening day 1971 was a day to remember, not only because hungry customers were getting their first taste of Lou’s soon to be legendary deep dish pizza, but because a car crashed through the walls of the main dining room during the dinner hour. Looking back on it, Jean says this incident made for an “exciting” opening day, but like with all things, the Malnatis bounced back.
After meeting with enormous success in Lincolnwood, Lou decided it was time to expand the business, and he opened another pizzeria in Elk Grove Village, close to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Unfortunately, a road construction project began just a few months after the opening, and the next 14 months nearly put Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria out of business. Lou refused to give up, and as soon as construction finished, the customers came back in droves.
The Malnatis were not so fortunate when they opened their third pizzeria in south suburban Flossmoor in 1977, just a year before Lou died. The logistical nightmare of opening a location over 50 miles from where Lou had created his "hub" in the north suburbs almost bankrupted the family. Just 16 months after opening, they were forced to close this pizzeria, and were left owing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Somehow, Lou's indomitable spirit lived on, as his son, Marc, graduated from college and joined Jean. In the Malnati tradition, they steadied the ship and paid back their vendors over the next few years.
Starting in 1971, Lou and Jean hosted their first annual charity event to raise a scholarship fund for a local athlete that would play football at Wake Forest University, in the name of famous Chicago Bear Brian Piccolo, who passed away from cancer.
After Lou also fell victim to cancer in 1978, Jean transformed this dinner into the Lou Malnati’s Cancer Research Benefit. To date, the Lou Malnati’s Cancer Research Fund has raised over $3 million to benefit organizations who are dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
With two successful locations going strong in Lincolnwood and Elk Grove Village, they decided it was time to open a third location in Wilmette, IL in 1981. This pizzeria in Wilmette was unique because rather than having a full dining room, it only offered carryout and delivery. This model of carryout and delivery proved to be incredibly successful, and vital to the future success of Lou Malnati’s. Presently, the majority of Lou Malnati’s Pizzerias are carryout and delivery only locations.
They created loyal, long-term relationships with suppliers that also beleived in the pursuit of excellence. They routinely visited the dairy where their cheese was prepared, and traveled to California each year at harvest time to choose their tomato crop.
1980 marked the first Taste of Chicago, and it was a great opportunity for people from all over Chicagoland and tourists alike to try our deep dish pizza.
With a growing demand for our pizza, in 1989, we opened our first north suburban pizzeria in Buffalo Grove. Unlike previous restaurant openings, this one created incredible buzz across the entire area. People lined up for hours to get into this new Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, that seated over 250 people!
By this time, our deep dish pizza had made quite a national name for itself. Ex-Chicagoans all over the country were missing their favorite hometown pizza, and so, "Lou Malnati's Priority Pizza" was born. We began shipping our pizzas coast to coast to satisfy their cravings, and the trend really caught on!
Meanwhile, our local pizzerias were still experiencing tremendous growth. We opened 10 locations in a 10 year period, including a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Lou Malnati’s Lawndale opened with the goal of helping to rejuvenate the neighborhood. We promised to give any profits from the store back to the community to benefit children’s educational and recreational programs, and although it took a while, in 2011, this restaurant turned its first profit. As promised, the money was donated back into the community.
Locations opened: Mount Prospect (September 15th, 1992), Naperville – Downtown (February 14th, 1994), Highland Park (April 12th, 1995), Chicago – Lawndale (November 8th, 1995), Park Ridge (April 15th, 1996), Libertyville (October 1st, 1996), Elmhurst (June 2nd, 1997), Palatine (May 4th, 1998), Chicago – Lincoln Park (November 24th, 1998), Carol Stream (March 5th, 1999)
With the new millennium came new opportunities for growth. Expanding within the Chicago city limits became a major goal, and while we continued to open new locations all over the suburbs, we added new Chicago locations to expand our delivery zones.
Meanwhile... our Lou Malnati's Priority Pizza mail-order venture was picking up more and more steam! In 2000, we decided to partner with other iconic Chicago brands like Lettuce Entertain You, Portillo’s, and Eli's Cheesecake Company, to create Tastes of Chicago, a website and shipping service where the best foods Chicago has to offer can be found in one place.
The economic recession dealt a major blow to businesses all over the country, and although we felt the burn, we also saw this as a great opportunity to strike favorable real estate deals and open more pizzerias, greatly expanding our reach across Chicagoland. Between 2000-2010, we opened 13 locations, and then 15 more stores between 2011-2016.
Locations opened: Schaumburg – Barrington Road (January 22nd, 2001), Naperville – South 95th (February 14th, 2001), Bloomingdale (November 14th, 2001), Evanston (May 8th, 2003), Grayslake/Gurnee (January 13th, 2005), Western Springs (June 27th, 2005), Geneva (October 24th, 2005), Lake Zurich (April 6th, 2007), Lakewood (August 29th, 2007), Chicago – Bucktown/Wicker Park (August 16th, 2007), Lake Forest (March 5th, 2008), Chicago – South Loop (2008) Tinley Park (March 26th, 2009), Bolingbrook (September 30th, 2010), Chicago – Gold Coast (July 4th, 2011), Downers Grove (February 28th, 2011), Joliet/Shorewood (April 12th, 2012), Oak Lawn (November 8th, 2012), Elgin (June 20th, 2013), Oak Park (February 10th, 2014), Palos Heights (September 25th, 2014), Chicago – West Loop (October 20th, 2014), Chicago – Lincoln Square/North Center (May 4th, 2015), Oswego (February 17th, 2015), Harwood Heights (June 6th, 2015), Buzz Bait Taqueria (August 21st, 2015), Cary (November 4th, 2015), New Lenox (February 15th, 2016), Chicago – Old Irving/Six Corners (March 17th, 2016), Phoenix (2016)
We have continued to invest radically in building a relationally sound culture from the inside-out at Malnati's. Staff members have a strong tendency to stay once they become a part of our team. Nearly 25% of our full-timers have been with us for more than ten years, a statistic that is unheard of in the restaurant business.
What’s next on the horizon for Lou Malnati’s? We’ve headed to Arizona! Our first out-of-state pizzeria opened in the heart of Phoenix in May 2016. We will open our next carryout location in Phoenix's Arcadia neighborhood in September 2017, then another full-service restaurant in Scottsdale in early summer 2018.