Scott Harris and his partners owned a successful little Italian restaurant on Clark in Chicago, but they kept hearing, “You have to come to Naperville.”
The self-proclaimed “city guys,” had no idea where that was.
“To us, that was farmland — horse and carriages! Did they have roads to get there? We didn’t even know there was I-290, we took Ogden the whole way to get there,” said Harris.
The young restaurant owners — Harris, 29 and his partners in their early 30s — had poured all they had into their year-and-a-half-old “Mia Francesca.” But he, Michael Noone and Terry Alexander decided to take a ride out to the hinterlands they kept hearing about.
“We took a ride out in my partner’s truck that had 300,000 miles on it. We weren’t sure we’d make it. Our first appointment was at this place, an old sports bar on Ogden. We kept asking each other, ‘Where is this place?’ We felt like we’d driven for hours.”
It would be a gross understatement to say the men were unimpressed by the shuttered sports bar on that day in 1993.
“Our first choice is an individual building with character,” he said. “We hated Ogden.”
Noone suggested Naperville had to have a downtown, since they knew there was a train station.
“I’m a chef so I follow the restaurants and I knew there was a place in the train station that had gotten a lot of press. We looked at Fifth Avenue Station at some places, and I thought that was the place to be, it was cool.”
Noone persisted, determined to see the downtown. The men drove into town down Washington Street, past Washington Square restaurant, past Jefferson Avenue, past Jackson to Chicago, where they took a right.
Charmed by the “quaint” downtown, the men lunched at Sweet Basil in the old house at 10 W. Jackson. Afterward, they found the Riverwalk.
“We were like, ‘This is really gorgeous!’ We walked, found the Beach, fed the ducks. We were in awe of the city. People were so folksy, so nice.”
They stopped at CeeBee’s grocery for a soft drink, then checked out what was going on at the old fire station across the street, where remodeling had begun.
“It was a cool fire station. We really wanted that fire station, but Lou Malnati’s already got it. Just up the street was a drug store we stopped at. The gentleman there couldn’t be nicer — the pharmacist, he must have been 70.”
Across the street, they stopped in at Leonardo’s Pizza next door and introduced themselves to the owners, Jim and Mary Fran Schenk.
Next door, at 18 W. Jefferson, the men noticed a “For Lease” sign where the Art Guild was located, but it was open only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
“We loved the building — the arched windows, the big stones, the character, everything about it.”
Harris could see the high ceilings inside through the windows, but his partner, at 5’7”, couldn’t see in. Harris boosted him up and he cupped his eyes with his hands to peer inside.
The men loved the old city hall and the fact that the second floor had been the mayor’s office. Signing a lease within a month, they opened La Sorella di Francesca (the sister of Francesca) in March the following year.
They first figured the first floor of the building would provide plenty of seating for the “little sister” in sleepy Naperville.
“This dinky little town, we thought we’d do about $25,000 a week, make our money and be happy, use the upstairs for banquets. But it’s been a huge success since day one. I have pictures of lines around the block, back before we took reservations.”
The place was so popular, Harris and his partners would be having a meeting at the bar in the late afternoon and customers would start lining up outside at 4:15, sometimes in freezing weather. Occasionally, customers would knock on the window.
“We’d say, ‘don’t look!’ We were just dumb,” said Harris with a laugh. “We were so stupid, why didn’t we take reservations? People were waiting 3 hours! We’re in the service industry and we made people suffer to eat pasta. After 5 years, we changed and took reservations. Once we did, it was even better for business.”
The “live and learn” mentality applied to residents as well.
Mia Francesca offered valet service in the city, so the partners automatically offered valet service in Naperville at La Sorella.
“People thought valet meant we were a high-class place, they didn’t have that anywhere in Naperville, so they were scared to come without dressing up. We had waiters in t-shirts with menus on paper — how much more casual can we be? But they thought it was fancy, because it had valet.”
Most restaurants at the time still provided smoking sections, but the no-smoking movement was starting to gain momentum. Harris suggested they ban smoking at La Sorella.
“One of my partners was a smoker, but I told him it’s disgusting. I got my way, but sure enough, the first two people who walked in were 60 years old and asked ‘where’s the ashtray?’’
The owners apologized; the customers walked right back out the door.
“My partner said, ‘we’re changing it tomorrow!’ But we didn’t — people appreciated the non-smoking rule, they were grateful.”
A few years after La Sorella opened, the partners bought the building from their previous landlord. They’ve never been sorry, and they’re proud to be the first Chicago restaurant to open a Naperville location. (And the second … Francesca’s Passaggio opened on Route 59 south of 95th Street in 2005.)
Harris remembers thinking it was “wild” when he heard some Naperville residents say they didn’t want a big Chicago restaurant in their little town.
Times certainly changed. Though he dodges credit for the Rosebud, Catch 35, Hugo’s, Sullivan’s, Heaven on Seven, etc. lineup of big-city restaurants that followed La Sorella, Harris acknowledged that for the first 10 years, other restaurateurs took notice that “Francesca’s is killing it out there!”
Did he realize they’d start such a trend?
“We had no idea,” said Harris. “We were just young, dumb kids. We liked it, we had a feeling — we didn’t know.”
Napervillians, on the other hand, knew immediately. Twenty years later, though the lines are gone, they are still eating up the food in historic surroundings.
Joni Hirsch Blackman is a journalist and author of “Downtown Naperville.” Contact her at email@example.com.