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Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Flossmoor – a history

Marc Malnati, owner of the popular pizza chain, is delighted to reopen the business’s doors in Flossmoor and provided the following history for the H-F Chronicle.

We have been about the business of opening a few stores every year, as we seek to spread the gospel of deep-dish pizza. But the thing that makes this store so unique is that it was this very location in The Flossmoor Commons Centre which almost bankrupted our 45-year old company before we even got started.

It was the winter of 1976-77, one of the very coldest on record, when my father, Lou Malnati, chose Flossmoor to plant his third site. It was at that very time that my younger brother, Rick, would captain his New Trier High School squad downstate to fight for the IHSA State Championship. I was capping off my education at Indiana University, and preparing to join Lou in the family business.

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After a 22-year career at Pizzerias Uno and Due, my father had decided to branch out on his own in 1971. He opened stores in both Lincolnwood and Elk Grove Village that year to rave reviews. By 1973, he had taken on New York partners, who planned to spawn pizzerias up and down the east coast. Lou imagined that he could become the Ray Kroc of pizza, until doctors told him that he had cancer in early 1974 as he turned 45 years old.

Surgery and treatment ensued, and for a few short years it looked as though Lou might beat the disease that he and my mother had fought defiantly when they created a yearly event to raise money to fight cancer in the name of their fallen young friend and Chicago Bears halfback, Brian Piccolo.

It was during that brief window of health that Lou decided to apply his energy to creating a new restaurant.  The landlords of the Flossmoor Commons told him that the farm land that stretched for more than a mile along the north side of Vollmer Rd was about to see a massive housing development, and that Lou could join the anchors, Raymond Levine Menswear, Fork of Friendship Fondue, and Yaseen Jewelers.  He was sold on the opportunity.

During the year after the new store opened, Lou’s cancer returned with a vengeance, and he passed away in early 1978.  Things went from bad to worse when the promised housing development failed to come to fruition and Malnati’s signature deep-dish was slow to gain acceptance as most of our South Side customers had grown up on thin pizza.

In the meantime, I graduated in the spring of 1977.  I split my time between trying to manage the newest restaurant, and spending time with my father. Though I wanted nothing more than to see my dad’s dream through by helping to get Flossmoor on track, my mother and I decided to close it amidst a mounting debt of nearly $600,000 in May of 1978. The debt created in building out the Flossmoor Commons site, brought us extremely close to falling into bankruptcy and almost forcing us to shutter the other two restaurants as well.

But hard work and an entrepreneurial will to get up off the mat prevailed. We paid back the loans over the next few years, and as the dust settled, we began to invest in growing our staff and new store opportunities.

Malnati’s has 45 Chicagoland pizzerias today and one location in Phoenix, Arizona. The company employs over 3,300 people.  And now, almost 40 years after locking their doors in Flossmoor, we will throw them open for a second time in the very same location, with a carry-out and delivery shop.  We are betting that the second time around is going to yield way different results!

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