Employees at this Valparaiso, Indiana, restaurant have clocked decades on the payroll, while customers have included Phyllis Diller and Red Buttons.
Fortunately for pizza fans in Valparaiso, Indiana, Anthony Gengo Sr. couldn’t deny his dough-bound destiny. He’d been born into the business; his mother owned a bread company in New York, delivering door-to-door. But when she passed away, he and his sister sold the enterprise, and Anthony took off for California. However, a fateful stop to visit his in-laws in Hobart, Indiana, changed his path. “He found himself a job on a bread truck, and eventually he started looking around for a building,” recounts Tami Charnas, manager of Tony’s Place. “He opened up the very first pizza shop in Valparaiso. That was in 1955, and 60 years later, Tony’s Place is still going strong.”
After juggling the bread route and pizzeria for seven years, Anthony Sr. gave up his “day job” to fully focus on the growing business, which found immediate success thanks to time-tested recipes from his Italian family (including his mother’s beloved dough and sauce). In 1962, he moved to a larger location down the street and helmed the business for 20 years before passing it down to his son, Anthony Jr.—who, for the past four decades, has carefully guarded those traditions. “Anthony Sr. had all those recipes in him when he came here,” notes Charnas, a 34-year employee at Tony’s. “And Anthony Jr. is still the only one doing all of the cooking every day: sauce, dough, lasagna.”
The iconic recipes are a definite draw, but something less tangible works to keep Tony’s an institution as it heads into its seventh decade of service: a sense of family. Even though the location seats 375 in its bar and family-friendly dining area, the sprawling size doesn’t detract from its decidedly personal touch. With several employees clocking not years but decades on the payroll, and customers who have been loyal since its opening year (not to mention visits by celeb fans such as Phyllis Diller and Red Buttons over the decades), Tony’s has become a touchstone in this Chicago suburb. “It’s like a Cheers place—a home, not a restaurant,” Charnas says. “I’m always amazed at how many people have grown up here. For so many people, it’s part of their life—Tony’s is just part of them.”