Since 1950, this pizzeria and tavern has become a familiar landmark in the Windy City—and it’s now selling more pizza than ever during the pandemic.
Italian immigrants Frank and Lena Maiale, the original owners of Candlelite Chicago, opened the doors of their tavern-style pizzeria in 1950, serving up thin-crust pies and libations to neighborhood locals. In subsequent years, ownership would transfer multiple times, until the business shuttered in 2000. But Pete Vernon stepped up to breathe new life into the business, undertaking an extensive remodel and tripling the square footage to open again in 2002.
In 2008, an employee with a background in finance, Pat Fowler, nabbed a job at the pizzeria, starting at the bottom in a part-time position. “I was a delivery driver, busboy, dishwasher—you name it, I did it,” Fowler recalls. “I fell in love with the business and took the leap, buying out Pete’s other partners. Neither of us came from a foodservice background, and we thought it’d be easy to own a restaurant. We were really wrong about that!”
Though Fowler admits he “made every mistake in the book,” he learned quickly through a period of trial by fire. Over the years, he has learned to keep things simple, with a basic family-friendly menu and about 75% of food sales stemming from pizza. Outside on its iconic vintage sign, Candlelite’s marquee often gives shout-outs to the local community—for birthdays, anniversaries and even young sports stars.
“We sponsor a ton of kids’ sports teams and pick a player of the week every week,” Fowler says. “We’ll take a photo of the kid with the sign and give him a free pizza. He’ll bring his family and feel like a celebrity!” Candlelite also works closely with local schools and churches, picking donation days on which the organization receives a certain percentage of sales.
That community involvement has definitely paid off in recent months, as pizza sales have actually increased despite challenging times. “Our customers that we sponsored see our investment in the community, and now they come and support us,” Fowler says. “We’re selling more pizza than ever before. We’ve really lucked out.”
Just recently, Fowler was also touched by a couple in their 80s who visited and said they’d had their first date at the Candlelite decades ago. “For us, we just want to find what we’re good at, what customers like, and be really good at it,” Fowler says. “But we realize that Candlelite has a lot of meaning to people—it’s more than just a pizza place.”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.