Me at work in my studio
Customers are often surprised to learn there really is a person behind the name Nunzio’s, the popular Italian restaurant located at 5800 North Second St., in Loves Park.
The man is Nunzio Canale, a Rockford native who’s built a name for himself in the restaurant business, thanks to 35 years of dishing up excellent food and quality service.
Nunzio got an early start, when he landed a job at the age of 14 busing tables and washing dishes at D’Augustine’s, a restaurant that was located at Five Points in Rockford. With books in hand, Nunzio went straight to the restaurant one day after school, calling his parents with the good news about his first job. About a year later, he became the cook and kitchen manager at Michael’s, which opened in the D’Augustine location.
But Canale had a decision to make. After graduating from high school in three years, he had to choose between attending college and pursuing a full-time career. He decided on the latter, fulfilling a dream his father, Jack Canale, had since emigrating from Sicily of opening his own restaurant. “I’m only 17, if it doesn’t work out, I can always go to college,” Canale told his father. He never looked back.
The Canale Family opened Nunzio’s in 1981, but the restaurant eventually outgrew its space along North Second Street. Eight years later, they moved a couple blocks north to its current location. Nunzio’s is a family affair. His sister, Jo, and her husband, Silvio, work there, as did Canale’s two sons, Jack and Joe, when they were home from college. His mother, Jessie, helped out, too, by preparing the spices for their trademark meat sauce and au gratin potatoes.
Nunzio’s is the ideal location for casual dining or celebrating a special occasion, such as a baptism, wedding rehearsal or birthday party. Many regular customers live in nearby Loves Park and Machesney Park, but it’s not uncommon for hungry patrons to arrive from across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
“You can be comfortable here after a baseball or football game, for a nice anniversary dinner or anything in between,” says Canale. “It’s been satisfying to prepare a good meal and to hear positive feedback from our customers. There are generations of people who have met here and brought their kids and grandkids here. We’re not the fanciest restaurant around, but I like to think we have some of the best food and the most consistent food. Our customers appreciate that.”
In the early days, Nunzio’s was best known for having the “cheesiest” pizza in town. While the pizza remains popular, the menu has evolved over time to include appetizers, salads, burgers, steaks and seafood. And the portions are always generous. “Whether it’s a beef sandwich or lasagna, most customers have extra food to take home,” Canale says. “It’s like two meals for the price of one.”
The most popular item, by far, is the Steak Sinatra, a 14 or 20-ounce New York Strip, served with a choice of pasta or soup of the day, salad and choice of potato or vegetables and Italian bread. The Steak Sinatra, which was coined by some customers, is broiled and then dusted with bread crumbs and baked in butter and garlic. “It’s become our trademark,” Canale says. “When I talk to people about Nunzio’s, it’s always the first thing they ask about.”
Nunzio’s, can best be described as “An American Dream” began by a father, his son and family and through many years of hard work, a devoted customer base and delicious food, has thrived as a restaurant that can be enjoyed by all. “You start out with nothing, then you nurture it and watch it grow,” Canale says. “It’s been a fun ride. Hopefully, we’ll be here another 35 years.”