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It’s crystal clear that great eats is truly one of life’s great joys as soon as you walk into Leo’s Pizza in Jacksonville, and the extraordinary scents of traditional Italian cooking smack you in the face.

“We’ve been in Jacksonville, Illinois about 45 years,” said Antonia Alfano, who owns the town mainstay along with her brother, Salvatore Vitale, and sister, Susanna Lansaw. “My dad came to America to a nearby small town and then he drove around and decided to look for a good town and this was very appealing to him and he decided this was it.”

Alfano’s father, Leo Vitale, came to the United States from Sicily to create a better life for his family. He was a skilled welder, but cooking was always an interest for him and he put that love for Italian cooking to good use. 

“When he came here, he went right into Italian cooking. He learned the pizza trade from other cousins and family members that had come before him, and then he added everything else himself,” explained Alfano. “When I came to America from Sicily, I was 13. I was 13, my brother was 11 and my sister was 3.”

Today Leo’s Pizza is thriving in the heart of Illinois corn country and it is truly a family affair. 

“There’s always one or two of us here running the business and that makes a big impact. It shows people that we care,” exclaimed Alfano.

With its dim lighting and walls lined with family photos, Leo’s Pizza looks and feels like a comfortable, welcoming restaurant that might have been transplanted straight from New York City or Chicago where Italian neighborhood restaurants are abundant. 

“It’s all made with Italian ingredients, number one,” Alfano said when asked about the food at Leo’s Pizza. “From the flour to the cheese to the pasta, it’s all made from scratch. And I think that’s what attracts people. Our spaghetti sauce, our Alfredo sauce, everything is made from scratch.”

Alfano’s pride in the family business is obvious when she gets the chance to work the dining room at Leo’s Pizza and visit with old friends and make new ones.

“I love coming to work every day,” said Alfano with a smile. “One, because I love seeing my customers. They’re all like family to us and just because I just love cooking for them. When our customers say the food was delicious it just gives us a sense of pride, and it’s just something that we just love. This is our home away from home. Half of the time we’re here more than we are at home.”

“We were taught by my father, Leo, how to run a business and how to approach people and to talk to them with respect,” said Alfano’s younger brother, Salvatore Vitale, who is also a part-owner at Leo’s Pizza. “Above all, have a good work environment and have people love you as much as you love them.”

Although evolution is essential to ensure a business runs smoothly, the look of Leo’s Pizza has stayed unchanged over the years.  In fact, Alfano wanted to spruce up and update Leo’s Pizza’s dining room, much to the dismay of her customers.

“Oh, let’s change it up and make it more modern looking and more than half of our customers tell us ‘No!’ They tell us it won’t be Leo’s Pizza. So, we just keep putting up more of our Sicilian decor,” Alfano said with a big grin. 

I’ll tell you what, this town here has accepted us with open arms,” Vitale stated. They really have, and they’ve done so much for us. We give back in return in many ways, in donations or free pizzas, and we do a lot special events like ‘Pack the Houses’ for people and local schools.”

Leo’s Pizza is truly a passion for everyone involved.

You’ve got to love what you do. You’ve got to love your business,” Alfano said. The one thing I would stress to anybody opening up a business is you really have to want to work hard at it and dream big.  As long as you work hard, your dreams will come true.

I want the people of Illinois to know about small business owners and that they’re very hard-working people. Those who run small retail businesses in Illinois truly put their heart into their businesses compared to any chains. Look at Jacksonville. A lot of big companies have come and gone, and yet the ones that still last have been our small businesses and they’re the ones thriving right now,” Alfano stated.

Leo’s Pizza may look like a small business from the outside, but it feels like a factory if you walk in the kitchen and see the breakneck speed of the cooking. The business employs about two dozen full-time people and 10 partimers.

”One of the things I love about being a retailer is the connections I have here with the people,” Alfano said. Also being a retailer for me is an adventure at the same time. Like I said, it comes with sacrifices, but at the same time, I love what I do.”

A piece of advice that I want to share with anybody that wants to get into a business, in retail especially, is that if you’re going to do this, know what you’re doing,” explained Vitale. “Don’t just do it because you say to yourself, ‘You know, I want to do it because I think its fun.’ I’ve seen people do this for the first time, and then they fold completely because they thought it looked fun and easy.

“You are married to this business. I’m married to this business. I have to be here. Some people don’t have to, but, we grew up with it, so we have to hold on to it because this is our living,” said Vitale, his voice dripping with a degree of pride that is part of the secret sauce that makes Leo’s Pizza an absolute Illinois treasure.

Central Illinois

Whimsy Tea

IRMAApril 15, 2024

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