News & Politics » Neighborhood News

Pizza on earth, goodwill toward men: a restaurant opens in Lawndale



Rick and Marc Malnati run a prosperous chain of pizza restaurants started nearly 25 years ago by their father Lou. As they were getting ready to open a Naperville outlet, their ninth, a friend of theirs came to the brothers with a proposition.

"It's time you did something biblical," said the Reverend Wayne Gordon. "Why don't you tithe your tenth restaurant to the kingdom of God?"

That was a couple of years ago. The Malnatis decided to rise to Gordon's challenge. In July the brothers, in a joint venture with Gordon and his evangelical Lawndale Community Church, open a pizza parlor that will be Lawndale's first new full-service restaurant in a generation.

"After the 60s and the riots, things became demoralized around here," says Myrtle Pearson, the chief pizza cook at Lou Malnati's in Lincolnwood. Pearson's lived for years in Lawndale, three blocks from the new restaurant's site at Ogden and Cermak. "The area went down, way down. The factories and companies left, and the restaurants closed up. For so long all we've had are places where you can pick up fast food, and that's it. But the people here aren't moving out the way they used to, and so a Malnati's, where you can take your family and have a nice meal, means a great deal."

Lou Malnati once managed pizzerias Uno and Due, the crowded off-Loop spots that popularized deep-dish pizza after World War II. "Dad was the horse of the operation," says Marc. But Lou eventually fell out with the owners, and in 1971 he opened his own place in Lincolnwood. Lou stuffed his restaurant with sports memorabilia and gained notice for hosting an annual fund-raiser in the memory of Brian Piccolo, the Chicago Bear whose death from cancer became the subject of a book and a TV movie.

After Lou died in 1978, Marc entered a men's group at the Winnetka Bible Church and became a parishioner. As the church developed ties with the needy Lawndale Community Church, Marc got to know Wayne Gordon. At about the same time Rick, who helped coach varsity basketball at New Trier High School, met Gordon while setting up a summertime exchange with athletes at Lawndale's Farragut High School.

A graduate of Wheaton College, Gordon came to Lawndale in 1975 to coach football and wrestling at Farragut. "Coach" is still his nickname. When he was 16, back in Fort Dodge, Iowa, he'd received an unusual calling to religion. "I was in bed one night, praying," he recalls, "and God implanted the thought in my mind and heart that I should work in the black community." Farragut gave Gordon, who is white, that opportunity.

Lawndale Community Church began as a weekly Bible study class Gordon held for his football players. The church now comprises a congregation, a health clinic staffed by 17 doctors, a gym, tutoring and education programs, and an economic development corporation. Gordon, today the LCC outreach pastor, and other church leaders live in the area. "We're a community church, and so that's expected," he says.

The development corporation, started in 1987, has focused on renovating houses in a 40-square-block area around the church and selling them at below-market rates to buyers who have been counseled in home ownership. Currently it's committed $3.5 million to rehab a 48-unit apartment building at 19th and Pulaski that's destined for renters.

The corporation had failed every time it tried to set up a business or factory in the area, but after meeting the Malnatis Gordon decided to give it another try. He has a gift for enlisting others in his causes. "I have a certain passion," Gordon says, "and I guess it's contagious." When he suggested tithing to the Malnatis, he didn't have to twist their arms. "Rick and I had thought for a long time that we should be giving back more than we had been," says Marc. "We'd been blessed--we always felt God had had a hand in our pizzas."

Gordon took the brothers to New York City to visit a Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor that lawyer Joe Holland had opened in Harlem. Holland, who's now New York's commissioner of housing and community renewal, had enticed the ice cream company's Ben Cohen to launch the shop in an arrangement that gave a quarter of the profits to a homeless shelter. Shelter residents manned the counter. The Malnatis were impressed by the way the store helped its workers get back on their feet.

When they returned to Chicago, Gordon says he and the Malnatis became "partners on a handshake deal." The LCC set its sights on an abandoned building that had once housed a video arcade and a corner store, acquired it through a city tax reclamation program, and proceeded to renovate it on the strength of a $100,000 no-interest loan (Gordon won't say who made it) and donations from firms that Gordon corralled into the project.

"Wayne has a cottage near mine in Michigan," says Wayland Jensen, proprietor of a Bridgeview company that's providing windows. "Our youngest daughter is a missionary in Africa. I appreciate the commitment to Christ he and his people have." Dick Lauber, owner of a Carol Stream masonry firm, is contributing the bricklaying. "My son went to college with Wayne," says Lauber. "I believe strongly in what his church down there is doing. I'm not going to live in Lawndale myself, but with my business I can help."

When Drew Goldsmith, a young Lawndale man who'd labored on previous LCC projects, ended his tour with the marine corps in April, he went in to see Gordon. "Coach said he had plans for me," recalls Goldsmith, who within a week found himself the project's construction manager.

The restaurant space will boast a terrazzo floor, tables and booths seating a hundred, and a large kitchen in back. Four apartments are going in upstairs, and the city has rebuilt the sidewalks in front. Two wooden, shield-shaped signs advertising the pizzeria will hang over Ogden and Cermak. "It's been a project and a half," says Goldsmith, "but it makes me feel good to produce something beautiful."

The restaurant reflects a $200,000 investment by the Malnatis. As usual, the theme will be sports, and the fare will include sandwiches, salad, and pasta in addition to standard deep dish. There'll be carryout service, but no alcohol. "There have been problems with bars around here," explains Gordon. "We're pressing to vote the precinct dry anyway." Veterans from other Lou Malnati's locations are being imported to direct the operation, among them Myrtle Pearson. Rose Pearson, Myrtle's daughter-in-law who manages the Wilmette carryout store, is coming on board as a manager. But most employees--the waiters, busboys, and kitchen staff--will be hired locally.

The Malnati bothers hope to draw customers from Lawndale and sites beyond, such as the criminal courthouse at 26th and California and the west-side medical center complex, and also from United Center crowds. Profits will be used to pay off loans taken out on the project and to fund LCC programs in education and athletics. The four upstairs apartments will be available to homeless families for stays of up to six months.

"But this is no soup kitchen," says Rick Malnati. "For us, we can build a farm system to bring the best employees from Lawndale up into our other restaurants. Plus, if we can make money, then an Athlete's Foot, a Chili's, and other stores and restaurants may be persuaded to come in. If we succeed Ogden Avenue will be lined with stores, the way it used to be. We'll bring hope and jobs. If we fail, well at least we tried."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Drea.

Add a comment