Recently, I was going through some of my old posts on Road Tips for a recommendation for a friend who was traveling to Chicago. I was looking for a post on Connie's Pizza, a five restaurant chain of pizza places primarily on the south and west sides of Chicago. Going through the blog, I realized that A) I didn't have an entry for Connie's on Road Tips; and B) I hadn't been to Connie's for quite possibly five years. I remedied that earlier this past fall with a visit to the Connie's Pizza in west suburban Westmont (see map).
While Connie's Pizza touts their restaurant as family owned since 1963, it was a year earlier that it really started. Jim Stolfe and a partner bought a pizza joint on 26th Street in the south Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport. Both would work day jobs, then work at night making pizzas. A few months into the partnership, Stolfe's partner wanted out, saying working a day job was enough for him. Not having enough money to buy him out, Stolfe traded his 1962 Oldsmobile Starfire for his partner's half of the pizza joint.
The original restaurant that Stolfe and his partner bought on 26th Street was named Connie's. They didn't have enough money to change the sign, and according to his son, Mike, who is the current CEO and President of Connie's Pizza, the elder Stolfe was pretty low-key and didn't have a big ego, so he kept the sign when he bought his partner out. (Jim Stolfe retired in 2008, but was still coming in six days a week after his retirement.)
Mike Stolfe getting a pan pizza out of the oven. Photo courtesy Gazette Chicago.
By 1966, Stolfe had outgrown the original location and moved to a 3,000 square foot building at W. 26th and Normal. Nearly 20 years later, Stolfe's business had grown to the point that he needed to make another move. That's when he moved into their flagship location on Archer Ave. near the confluence of the Stevenson and Dan Ryan Expressways just south of downtown Chicago (see map). The Archer Ave. location was 15,000 square feet and served as both a restaurant and Connie's Pizza's catering headquarters.
From there, Stolfe branched out to other areas of Chicago. At one point, they had 8 locations throughout the Chicago area. Today, in addition to their flagship location, Connie's Pizza has places at Navy Pier and McCormick Place in Chicago, as well as locations in far western suburban Naperville and the Westmont restaurant. If you go to any sporting event in the Chicago area, there's a good chance you'll see Connie's Pizza for sale at ballparks and the United Center.
Jim Stolfe's name was in the news in 2007 when he testified in the infamous "Family Secrets" trial against reputed mob boss Frank Calabrese, Sr. Stolfe told the court that Calabrese had demanded "street payments" from Stolfe's business beginning in the early 80's. Jim Stolfe was scared that he or his business would be harmed, so he began to make payments to Calabrese like he was an employee. Stolfe testified that he made payments of around $270,000 dollars to Calabrese in exchange for "protection" for over 20 years. Calabrese was subsequently found guilty of extortion in addition to other charges along with other Chicago area mobsters.
I had eaten at the Connie's Pizza in south suburban Orland Park a handful of times when I had dealers in that part of the city and when I'd stay overnight. However, they closed up that location last year, as well as a location out in far western Carol Stream. But their location along busy Odgen Ave. in Westmont is still open and I went there that particular evening.
It was well past the dinner rush, so there was hardly anyone in Connie's when I got there. I was seated in a booth and given a menu. Interestingly, there was no one else in the dining room I was in (there are two dining rooms at this particular Connie's), save for an elderly couple that was seated directly behind me. I find it sort of strange that they insist on putting different parties in close proximity to each other even in a nearly deserted dining area. And it was sort of poignant as it appeared this couple was out on a first date. It was not difficult to overhear their conversation and how they talked of loneliness, their love of casinos and their interests. I tried my best to concentrate on reading my Chicago Tribune.
Connie's Pizza features a number of different styles of pizza - an ultra-thin Neapolitan, their famous thin style, a medium-depth pan pizza, a deep-dish pan pizza, a stuffed pan pizza and something called a half-pan Sicilian style pizza. Each of Connie's pizza is topped with their proprietorial pizza sauce that is made special for them from California tomatoes, and with high quality mozzarella cheese that is made specifically for Connie's at a Wisconsin dairy farm. Connie's features two dozen fresh toppings to put on their pizzas.
I went with my old stand-by - a small (10") sausage/pepperoni/mushroom thin crust pizza. I contemplated trying the Neapolitan pizza as they said it was new on the menu, but decided to go with what I knew to be as very good. I also had a couple glasses of the Leinenkugel Oktoberfest beer that was a little flat out of the keg as it was toward the end of it's annual life cycle as a seasonal beer.
One of the nice things that you get at Connie's is a small round loaf of their homemade bread. It's warm out of the oven giving it a nice flavor with a soft and chewy taste. It's very good. So good that you don't want to load up on the bread out of fear that you won't have room to eat the whole pizza.
After about 20 minutes, my pizza arrived at the table, oozing with cheese and overloaded with large chunks of sausage, an ample amount of tangy pepperoni slices and a like number of fresh sliced mushrooms. Connie's thin pizza is one of those where the cheese and toppings are more thick than the crispy pizza dough on the bottom. Those are the absolute best types of pizza. You get a great deal of cheese and toppings with every bite with out a lot of the cooked dough.
It was all too much for me to eat in one sitting. I had a small corner of the bread and was sorry to see that go to waste, but I did have them wrap up the remaining two slices to be able to take with me back to the hotel. It was a nice little breakfast the next morning for me.
I know Chicagoans who think Connie's is the best pizza in the world. While I wouldn't go quite that far, Connie's thin crust is truly a very, very good pizza. I need to get to Connie's more often as it is pretty easy for me to get to when I go into Chicago on Interstate 88. I know it won't be another five years before I get back there.