Readers visiting the Web site of the daily newspaper in Du Quoin, Ill., might be treated to stories about a dance team made up entirely of librarians, tips on combating Japanese beetles and a sports story about something called "pickleball," which is similar to tennis, but played with paddles and a whiffle ball.
Take a closer look at some of the stories, though, and you'll see numerous references to Alongi's. The name is used in a manner that assumes the reader knows what Alongi's is, and when it comes to the residents of Du Quoin, the assumption would be correct.
Alongi's – the proper name is Alongi's Since 1933 – is southern Illinois' oldest Italian restaurant and the first to introduce pizza to the region. The current operators, grandchildren of founder Guy Alongi, are proud of the fact that the restaurant has served more than 1 million pizzas and 8 million glasses of Budweiser over the past three quarters of a century, all while operating in a community of fewer than 5,000 residents.
Along with comments about dishes such as homemade lasagna and shrimp scampi, reviews of Alongi's speak about the restaurant's popular salad dressing, based on a recipe created by Guy Alongi's wife, Rosalie, and also sold in area grocery stores. Customers also talk about the restaurant's family atmosphere.
"Although I'm now living in Toronto, I grew up right next to Du Quoin and every major event we celebrated at Alongi's," said Jill Pursell, a marketing associate with FABU Marketing.
"It was one of my favorite places growing up and always put a smile on my face. The people who worked there were fantastic," she said. "That was one of the only restaurants we went to when it was time to 'eat out nice' in our area."
Often, elderly couples come to the restaurant to show their grandchildren where grandma and grandpa came on their first date, said John Alongi, son of the restaurant's founder.
"We have third-generation customers who come here," he said. "This is a destination restaurant. If you're driving 30 miles to Du Quoin, you're not going to get sidetracked by a franchise restaurant. You're coming to Alongi's."
Restaurant known nationwide
Guy Alongi came to the United States from Cinisi, Sicily, in 1902. Alongi worked in the area's coal mines before opening a dry goods store with his brother Frank, then later a beer and soft drink distributorship.
In the years following prohibition, "Guy's Place," as it was first known, was a saloon that consisted of a 60-foot bar and liquor store. As business grew, Guy's Place added pizza to its menu.
John Alongi remembers the days when the family lived above the restaurant.
John Alongi at the Pizza Executive Summit in Chicago
"We were raised in the business," John Alongi said. "We used to go downstairs and mop the place when we were kids."
John Alongi left Du Quoin in the early 1950s to fight in Korea. When he returned, he and his brother Jerome took over the family business.
"We've changed with the times," he said. "There was a time when our bar business was very important, but over the years we could see that the food business was where it was going. We built a reputation as a great family restaurant."
The nearby Du Quoin State Fair helped give Alongi's national exposure. The fair drew Hollywood performers, country singers from Nashville and dirt track race car drivers to the area.
"In those days, if you were a country and western singer you weren't considered at the top of your field unless you had played Du Quoin," he said. Celebrities, including Red Skelton, Sonny & Cher, Connie Stevens, and sports personalities such as Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola and Jack Buck have visited Alongi's over the years.
"Minnesota Fats used to come in and eat a whole pizza by himself," Alongi said.
The fair, Du Quoin's proximity to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and events such as the Holiday Rambler RV show continue to draw out-of-towners to Du Quoin. The John R. Alongi Foundation offers scholarships to SIU to residents of Perry County, Ill., where Du Quoin is located.
John's sons, the third generation of the Alongi family, now operate the restaurant.
The operation has expanded as well, taking space in an adjacent theater that had stood vacant for years. The walls of the restaurant's dining rooms are covered with photos documenting the history of Alongi's and Du Quoin, along with baseball memorabilia from Jerome Alongi's days as a scout for major league teams.
Lessons for the industry
John Alongi is proud of the fact that, in 75 years, the family has only had to fire one person. Many of the restaurant's employees have made a career out of working at Alongi's.
"We had a chef who stayed with us for 35 years - until he died, and we had a bartender who was with us for 35 years, until he retired," John Alongi said.
In fact, when former Alongi's employees who have gone away to college come back to Du Quoin for a visit, they often ring up John Alongi to see if they can pick up a few shifts.
"We've had kids do that for the entire four years they're in college," he said.
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Alongi has some advice for executives in the restaurant industry. While he hears others complain about staffing and finding people to work weekends, he hasn't had those problems, he said.
"We have one rule," he said. "When you're listed on your shift, you show up. If you aren't going to show up, don't call us. Call one of your fellow workers and get them to show up for you."
Because Du Quoin is such a small town, chances are that the Alongis know the family of any job applicant. If they don't know the applicant, Alongi or one of his sons screens the applicant thoroughly.
And despite the prevailing notion that the youth of America are lazy and unmotivated, Alongi holds no such views.
"The wrong kids are getting all the publicity," he said. "I've got about 30 workers who are working their way through college who I would trust with anything."