October 9, 2010
Text and photos by Ted Regencia
SKOKIE, Ill — With its iconic neon sign and much talked-about pan pizza, the Village Inn Pizzeria in Skokie has more than established itself as a gastronomic institution in the North Shore.
For Skokie native Edgar Villanueva, it is more than just a neighborhood foodie destination, it’s part of his life.
Friday was the start of a three-day celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment. So Villanueva dropped by to grab a pizza for dinner and to congratulate its owner, Randy Miles, on the occasion.
Villanueva swore by the taste of the Village Inn’s pizza, and said even his 7-year-old daughter agrees.
“I have a daughter, she always asks for pizza. ‘Daddy, that’s the best pizza I’ve had,’ ” he said recalling her comment.
The 38-year-old father is no ordinary customer. In fact, he is a former employee, who started out a dishwasher at the Village Inn two decades ago. Today, he is a top business analyst at a conglomerate.
Citing himself as an example, Villanueva said the success of the restaurant, alongside the development of the Skokie community, could be attributed to Miles’ “charisma” and character.
“He [Miles] has great charisma as a person,” Villanueva said. “He knows how to treat people.”
Villanueva, who worked for 12 years as dishwasher, waiter, bartender and cook, added: “It was great working for him. He’s a fair person.”
Not only did Miles gave him the opportunity to work, he allowed him to pursue a college education at Oakton Community College while still working.
“He gave me bunch of opportunities. If I had not gotten the opportunity at the time, I probably would have not done it [finish school],” Villanueva added with a satisfied smile.
Village of Skokie corporate counsel Pat Hanley said even when he was still living in neighboring Wilmette, he was a regular patron. He said the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant are the big draws.
“I thought their pizza is the best,” said Hanley, who also praised the professionalism of the workers.
Hanley said it has become a tradition with his friends to come to the Village Inn on a Friday night for pizza and drinks.
On this particular night, the pizzeria, which also functions as a sports bar and grill, is offering half price on its pizza with the purchase of an alcoholic or nonalcoholic drink. The offer runs until Oct. 10.
Friday night also featured Q101 DJ Jan Jameson spinning music from the ’90s. Saturday evening features acoustic guitarist Marlon Longid.
“It’s a milestone in downtown Skokie for us,” said Miles, adding that it was “a challenge” when he first opened 20 years ago.
Miles said business was slow in downtown Skokie in 1990, and the previous owner, who called the place Timoni’s Pizzeria, did not attract many customers.
From 1953-80, the site was known as Alberti’s in anchoring the corner of Brown, Niles Center and Lincoln Avenue.
When Miles took over in 1990, the new management made a strategic decision to revert to the original taste Alberti’s was known for.
Because Miles did not have ownership of the original pizza recipe, he and his team toiled for weeks to perfect the taste and to make it as faithful as possible to the original.
“We must have eaten over a thousand bites, of a thousand different pizzas trying to get the recipe right,” he said.
Miles said, only last week, a granddaughter of the Alberti’s owner came by to try his pizza.
“She had pizza and enjoyed it. And she’s a woman who said she doesn’t like to go for pizza anywhere else, because nobody lives up to how her parents and grandparents made pizza,” Miles said. “I feel very proud that she came to my place.”
For Miles and the Village Inn, the hard work paid off well.
“We’ve seen a little bit of resurgence in the last 10 years, thank God,” Miles said. “And we think that downtown Skokie is building to be a great place that it was back in the ’50s and ’60s.”