In today’s episode, we speak with Rick Malnati and Jean Malnati Miller, Co-Owners and operators of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria—a Chicago-style pizza restaurant chain headquartered in Northbrook, IL.
Since its grand opening in 1971, Lou Malnati’s has continued to be the most recognized pizza chain in Chicago. Lou’s son, Rick Malnati, and wife, Jean Malnati Miller, share how they’ve kept Lou’s vibrant legacy and vision alive, even through hardship. Today, they still use Lou’s signature pizza recipe and strive to maintain its warm, family culture.
Listen as Rick and Jean talk about how integrity and consistency play a large role in the brand’s longevity, how they expanded to 59 locations, and why Lou Malnati’s is the best deep dish pizza in America.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with Jean Malnati Miller and her son, Rick, co-owners and operators of Lou Malnati’s Pizzerias – an American Chicago-style pizza restaurant chain headquartered in Northbrook, IL.
Founded in 1971 by Lou Malnati, the son of Rudy Malnati, a man who was instrumental in developing the recipe for Chicago-style pizza. Malnati’s Pizzerias have become one of Chicago’s best-known pizza chains. Although he passed away in 1978, Lou Malnati left a legacy that is thriving today, thanks to his wife and both of his sons carrying on the business through hardship and keeping his vision alive.
Join me today as I chat with Rick and Jean about how they have not only kept the family business going, but have grown it to an even bigger brand that I know their father would be proud of.
And good morning. How are you?
Rick Malnati: Morning, Kirk, how are you?
Jean Malnati: Good morning.
Kirk Bachmann: So great. Like I said earlier, I think this is the highlight of my year. This is going to be…
Rick Malnati: Very shallow year as far as memories go.
Kirk Bachmann: I know, I know. I need to step it up a little bit. But it’s a Windy City story. It’s a Chicago story. Before I even ask any questions, do you each have a favorite pizza on the menu? Do you eat pizza every day anymore, or no?
Jean Malnati: When I was in the restaurant every day, I always tasted it every day. I’d walk through the kitchen or I’d pick a piece up. Now I don’t eat it as often, maybe once a week, something like that. I still love it. I’ve been eating pizza for years. I’ve been eating it a long time.
Rick Malnati: It’s health food. It’s health food. She’s 93. When she orders, she has her own special onions at the restaurant. She’s got her own special everything. The guys in the kitchen have got to run around for about 15 minutes to gather her ingredients before they can make her pizza.
Kirk Bachmann: So then it’s always a good pizza. It’s exactly what you want. Rick, how about you, buddy?
Rick Malnati: I can eat pizza every day. I can go thin crust. Having kids – the kids love having pizza, so we have pizza very often at the Malnati residence.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Jean Malnati: If anybody visits and comes to see you, you don’t have to worry about taking them any place. They don’t want to go anywhere else. They want to go for pizza.
Kirk Bachmann: Why would they? It’s almost insulting to bring something else. I love that.
Lots of memories today, for me in particular as I prepared and read the script. As I mentioned, my parents are German immigrants. They came over in the 60s. We had a bakery in the city. Today is really all about Chicago. I almost went to high school – I probably would have competed against you, Rick, if we’d stayed there – but we moved out to Colorado.
So very excited to speak about the business and you and how you got there. I think there are 81 locations over four or five states. It’s absolutely amazing. So Jean, you were there from the beginning and likely had the idea to open it up in the first place, right? What do you remember about the early days? Was it a crazy idea? Was it a perfect idea?
Jean Malnati: Probably it wasn’t a perfect idea, but it was a great idea. Lou just thought in 1970 – he’d been working downtown for ten years, and he said, “Everything is going to the suburbs.” His dad didn’t believe that. We decided we were going to try it.
He left downtown and took the year off. We drove all over looking for places and finally found one in Lincolnwood. We were both 40 at the time, and we thought, “This is when we should make a move if we’re going to.” But it was Lou’s idea. He was a great restaurant man. Everybody was waiting for him to open.
Rick Malnati: Just some background there, Kirk. So when my mom said my dad left downtown, he was working with my grandpa at Pizzeria Uno and Due.
Jean Malnati: And Su Casa.
Rick Malnati: And Su Casa. These are just in walking distance, so his life was pretty much four in the afternoon until four in the morning down there at those restaurants, off on Sunday. He was living a pretty hard life, working pretty hard, running three restaurants that were pretty busy. He kind of decided that he wanted to own his own place. That separation from my grandpa was hard for my dad.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m sure. Very entrepreneurial. If he was in the room, whose idea would he say it was?
Rick Malnati: All his idea. Are you kidding me?! It’s all about him.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.
Jean Malnati: Marc – Rick’s brother, Marco – his father thought he was going to be Ray Kroc.
Rick Malnati: Ray Kroc. The Italian version of Ray Kroc.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it! I love it. He came close.
Rick Malnati: I think we had four when he passed away, didn’t we?
Rick Malnati: We had four. One was a sinking ship.
Kirk Bachmann: I read something about a car crashing into one of the restaurants on the opening day. Do you guys remember that? Which store was that?
Rick Malnati: That’s a good luck charm.
Jean Malnati: That was in Lincolnwood. Came right through the wall – a brick wall! It was one of our regulars who had been there all day. We had people waiting in the parking lot. People couldn’t get in the restaurant because we were so crowded.
Unfortunately, somebody was sitting in a deuce booth against the wall, this lady who lived across the street and her daughter. They got knocked out of their booth. She already had a broken arm at the time.
Rick Malnati: Back then, you didn’t sue. They didn’t sue. We were lucky.
Kirk Bachmann: Pizza for life!
Rick Malnati: My dad would always say he opened up an Italian restaurant on an Irish holiday, because it was St. Patrick’s Day, so maybe that explains why the guy was going forward through a brick wall. It was an Irish holiday in a Jewish neighborhood. All those things combined, and then having somebody drive through the wall was good luck.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love the opening of that story. You called it a deuce booth by the window. That is a restaurateur through and through. I knew exactly what you meant. I love that.
What about the kitchen, Jean? Is the cooking, recipe development, have you always been fond of the kitchen even before the pizzerias?
Jean Malnati: I guess I learned from my mother. My mother was a great cook. She could cook anything and make it taste good. She cooked differently, of course, than we did in the restaurant. Lou was a great cook. Both of the boys even took cooking classes in high school.
Rick Malnati: Just so we could get an A in a class.
Kirk Bachmann: I hear you, Rick.
Jean Malnati: [I hadn’t] been involved in the restaurant business until we opened in Lincolnwood. I was never involved when he was working downtown. So from Day One, all of a sudden I was carrying pizzas – dropping a lot of them. I was doing everything. I became involved. So whoever didn’t show up, that’s whose place I took.
Kirk Bachmann: You jumped in.
Jean Malnati: I did everything. I made pizzas. I never worked the ovens, though. Everybody else has got burns on their arms from working the ovens; I’m the only one that doesn’t.
I was bartender. I was waitress. I was busboy. I did everything.
Rick Malnati: It was a real family affair back then. I don’t think my brother or myself went to school on time once that year when we opened up because it was just all hands on deck. We were young at the time. My mom jumped in full steam ahead, too, with my dad.
And my dad was a gourmet cook. I think his dream was to open up a restaurant where he decided the menu for that day, and you came in and you ate what he cooked. He was making pizzas and making great pizzas, but he had ideas as well of what to do. We still have menu cards of how he’d write the recipes down. Then he’d draw them out. He was pretty artistic, too. He’d draw out how he wanted the plate to look. Pretty detailed.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That, today, is incredibly popular: that the menu changes every single day. Do either of you remember how important quality ingredients were back then, and still today?
Rick Malnati: In fact, the people that my dad did business with, the people that he bought sausage from, and cheese from, and tomatoes from, are people that we still do business with today. It’s just the next generation. Pretty soon, it’s going to be another generation, but it’s amazing that these relationships have kept that long. I think it’s a credit to my mother and my father for just how loyal they were. As our business grew, those people’s business grew as well.
Jean Malnati: They were very loyal to us. They knew we were opening on a shoestring. They did whatever they did to help us. If we ran out of something on a Sunday, all we had to do was call them, and they would come and bring it for us. That’s what a great relationship we had.
We had a produce man who lived down the street from us. He would bring us produce on Sunday. Because we didn’t know how much we were going to be serving. We couldn’t order like he did downtown. All of a sudden, you had these people that were there. We had big crowds.
Rick Malnati: And to add to that story a little bit: when my mom says that we didn’t know how much stuff we were going to go through. We opened up March 17, and it was about six or seven months later on a Sunday [that] my dad’s picture is on the front of the Chicago Tribune, voted the number one pizza in Chicago. From that day on, it was just bedlam over there. We were not prepared at all for that.
Jean Malnati: I’m sure you had stories like that from being in the bakery business.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I can remember those days. My mom still talks about when church got out. It was a long time ago, but she recalls one of the best days was generating about $2000 in sales. She was out of everything by 11:30 because the church crowd came. Then you stand there, and you don’t know what to do.
No, I love that story. I just wanted to relate to that a little bit. It’s funny how history sort of repeats itself. We are at least experiencing it here in Colorado where vendors – we call them farmers out here – are really connected with the restaurants. They are making themselves available, and they’re providing fresh products as much as they possibly can. I love to see that.
Even my students here, if they see a delivery truck in the parking lot, they start asking questions. “I thought our carrots came from the farm.” Even in February! They want the farmer to walk in. I just love the way society is going again.
Jean, I want to say a little bit on how you built this celebrated pizza brand, you and Lou and the boys and the family over time. What do you think, so many years later, were some of the differentiating factors and why, in seven months, Malnati’s pizza gets to the cover of the Chicago Tribune? Why were you able to thrive so well? Obviously, it was really tasty. Was it customer service? Was it Lou? Was it personality? A combination of all of that?
Jean Malnati: Yeah, it was a combination. He was a great restaurant man. He just knew what to do. It was his stage, really. He was an actor: he walked in and that’s when he was on the stage. And people loved him. They came in to see Lou, to get a hug from him or a kiss from him, or have a drink with him.
Rick Malnati: A lot of people prefer a drink with him.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s a good way to go.
Jean Malnati: It was a lot of hard work, too. Really, Marc and Rick were both in high school – no, you weren’t in high school yet. But they came in and they were busing. They were answering telephones. We had friends of ours – one of my friends would come in after working all day. She was working as a cashier for us. We just couldn’t get enough people to be there to take care of everybody.
He just had this innate sense of the right thing to do. Of course, we had a great product, and we’ve never changed it. We make it with love, and we make it with the same products that we started with.
Rick Malnati: Adding on a little bit to that, is just talking about my dad’s personality. He was a great leader. People wanted to follow him, so when he did leave to go and open up in the suburbs, a lot of the employees that he was working with down at Uno and Due followed him. They wanted to work with him. You just talk about our staff: I don’t think there are many restaurants that have kept the loyal staff for as long as we have. It all started with my parents, obviously. It was just a family connection. It’s continued like that to this day. We’ll go celebrate somebody’s 40th anniversary of working for Malnati’s. We’ve have one girl, Debbie, that’s still there. She started with us on opening day.
Kirk Bachmann: No! Wow!
Rick Malnati: She’s about 120 now.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s funny though because I always say people don’t leave businesses or jobs, they leave their boss. OR, they stay for their boss. That’s a true testimony to the culture that you and Lou developed early on.
Rick Malnati: That’s for sure.
Jean Malnati: We say the people have to have Malnati’s DNA.
Kirk Bachmann: It helps.
Jean Malnati: Now, it’s a little different. We’re much bigger.
Rick Malnati: It’s hard to keep the stickiness like there used to be, where you knew everybody and you knew everybody’s family. But still, we try to maintain that same type of culture.
Kirk Bachmann: And that’s all you can do is try. Because a lot of students will listen to this and they’ll get inspired about opening their own businesses, becoming an entrepreneur, were there some challenges? Were there things you wish you would have done differently? Aside from the car driving through, that’s tough, through the deuce booth. Was staffing an issue back then ever?
Jean Malnati: We had an all-woman kitchen. We had great women that were working for us. They were wonderful. Eventually, we started…
Rick Malnati: More Hispanic guys in the kitchen.
Jean Malnati: Now we do. When we first started out, we had all women in the kitchen.
Rick Malnati: All families.
Jean Malnati: Yeah. They’d bring their daughter in. They’d bring their cousin in. They’d bring their sister in. We had a pretty cohesive unit. I don’t know that we would have done everything differently.
Rick Malnati: Speaking to that, and speaking to the students. We had a pretty sensational product, and that didn’t change. The one thing is our menu, if you look back at the menu from 1971, it had about five other items on the menu. It had pizza. It had salad. It had a couple different sandwiches. We just did pizza, and we did pizzas as well as we could. You can go into some menus, it’s like reading the Bible now. They offer everything. We just did what we did, and we did that well. Things have changed, obviously, since then. We just found a product that people liked and just went with it.
Kirk Bachmann: And consistency is important. You mention family. When people bring in guests from out of town, they expect it to be a certain way. They wanted Lou to come around the corner, give them a hug, things like that. There’s something to be said about that. There’s something to be said about customer service at the highest level. It’s a customer experience that they never forget. I love that.
Jean Malnati: That’s what we’re still trying – everybody tries to do that. It’s maybe a little harder these days to do that.
Rick Malnati: Now, first impression. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Most of the time back [in the day] it was usually the high school kid on the phone. They’d call in and either order pizza to go or make a reservation or something like that. The person greeting them at the front door. Now, that’s switched. It’s electronic. You’ve got to have a nice website.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah.
Rick Malnati: That’s one thing that we were always conscious of, too. First impressions. Then, when you leave a place – because a good server can take care of an average meal. The opposite is not true. If you get a bad server, and you get an above average meal, they can ruin it for you.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Well said.
Rick Malnati: Customer service is so vital to what we do. My mom can speak about that. They’ve done everything they’ve could. Customer experience. If they ever have a problem, listen, we’ll take care of it right away. Making sure that the name is always thought about, with ingredients, with integrity, quality. My parents were always on top of that.
Kirk Bachmann: Along those same lines, maybe Jean, I’ll ask you as the matriarch of the family. What was and continues to be the most important thing around this brand, from your perspective?
Jean Malnati: To continue the way it’s been, to not change anything, and keep using the best ingredients that we always have used. Live up to the standards that we’ve always set. I think that’s a hard thing. Of course, I think a lot differently than maybe the younger people do today. I’m more set in my ways. I think, to me, I like more hands-on. I like more people instead of websites. I like live people answering telephones. I really think that’s important. I always felt my sons’ names, that’s their father’s name and that’s going to be their names for the rest of their lives. We always wanted to be proud of that name. We strive to make Lou proud at the same time.
Rick Malnati: Kirk, you can appreciate this, being in a bakery business. The ovens that we use in the back are bread-baking ovens. If you went into Lincolnwood originally in 1971, there would be two ovens with four decks. Now you go into Lincolnwood, and there are seven ovens with four decks, but it’s the exact same oven that we started with.
When my mom talked about burning her arms: our guys have to be trained, because you start the pizza in one oven, then you actually move it to an oven that dries out the ingredients a little bit. We cook the dough and crust and get that cooked, and then we move it. You’re not going to get a pizza at Malnati’s in fifteen minutes. It just takes three or four minutes to make, then it’s going to take about 25 minutes to cook. My mom talks about how we’re not changing: we have completely stayed true and loyal to that process.
Sometimes, the competition is all about time. We’re not about time. We’re about quality. If you’re going to order from us, you’re going to wait. We haven’t moved from that, ever. We’ve tried to do a better job preparing and having things ready to go, and have things right in front of people, and have our processes better. But as far as everything goes for making the pizza and cooking the pizza, it’s been the same since 1971.
Kirk Bachmann: Such a great message, beautifully said. Appreciate that. For young culinary professionals, that’s the kind of message they should hear. It’s about integrity. It’s about consistency, longevity. Even though we’re on Zoom right now doing a podcast, I’d much prefer to be in your living room with you right now.
Rick, you’re number 21, right?
Rick Malnati: I wore 21 in college because the number that I wore in high school, a kid that came after me, they promised him he could wear the number. They told me to pick my second choice. 21 has become the family number with my kids as well.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I wore 21 in high school as well. I’m always looking for those little nuggets like that. You were a basketball star. Listen, you’re on the internet, buddy, Bradley University, you were a star. You were a star in high school. You can see Jean lighting up with that. Then you were a coach, giving back. And your older brother, Marc, was already working in the business. I’d love for you to speak a little bit about your love for basketball and if you’re still connected to the game. How important was it to you and your brother to not only help your mom, but to live the legacy that your dad established for you?
Rick Malnati: We were a close-knit family. It was just me and my brother and my parents. When I was a freshman in high school, my dad actually got sick with cancer. My senior year, at this time of the year – in fact it was 45 years ago this last week – that he passed away. He has not seen what happened.
Most of everything that’s happened after he passed away, which is a great nod and a great thanks to my brother, who is four years older than me. He, like my dad, was a great leader. My brother’s been the main cog in Malnati’s growing like it has. He was going to go in the restaurant business and work with my dad. He was fine with that.
That was not the path that I would have chosen. I did choose that after my dad passed away just because, out of necessity. I got out of college. Being a basketball player, I didn’t go to class much, so I needed something to do. I needed a job. Thank God my mother and brother hired me.
But my brother is the guy that has really put his handprint on the business. It’s been his vision to grow it. I was working in the restaurant for fifteen years after college. As you said, I played basketball and I love basketball. Then, when you play Division 1 basketball, sometimes you can lose the love. It becomes more of a job. The fun gets taken out. There’s just a lot of pressure. So I felt that my last couple of years in college, and I couldn’t wait for it to end. I wasn’t looking to [make it] my career.
But when I got back in the restaurant, I was free sometimes in the morning. [From] eight to ten o’clock, my high school team would be practicing in the summer. It was my old coach who was coaching the team, so I’d go back and I’d work with the guys. All those guys that I worked with wound up working for us at [Malnati’s]. So it was a recruiting place. We could recruit the athletes. They needed a job. They were working on their games, and they needed a job, and they were hard workers. It was great.
Then, in 1991, I went to my head coach and I said, “Listen: I came out of college and I was right away a boss, because my name was Malnati.” As much as I wanted to work in the kitchen and be one of the people back there, with my last name, I was a boss. I didn’t know what it was like to really work for somebody. So I asked him, “I just need to feel what it’s like to work for somebody. I could maybe be a better boss if I understood what it was like to be a subordinate.”
He said, “Yeah. Come on. I’d love to have you.”
I had a great relationship with him. I actually was able to work at Malnati’s and be an assistant coach for five years. Then the head coaching job came up at the school, and the athletics director, who was the football coach when I was playing, said, “Hey, would you consider being the next head basketball coach?”
I said, “Yeah, as long as I can stay at Malnati’s, yeah, I’ll do that.”
When push came to shove, right at the end, they said, “Rick, the only way they’d give the job to you is if you have your teaching certificate here in the school.” Which was a crossroads for me. Me and my brother, I had to go to counseling to figure this one out.
“Marc, if you left me, it would kill me right now.” At that time, we had 10, 11 restaurants and were pretty hands-on. Marc was great. He was a great big brother. At the time, he said, “Listen: do what you’ve got to do. I’ll be fine.” He knew it [Malnati’s] was never really my dream, but it’s just like a sport. If you’re on a basketball team, you know what a good team is like. You want to recreate that in business.
Now everybody calls teams, like your employees. Everybody’s on a team. That’s true. And that’s how Malnati’s was built. It’s just a team, and there are people who have different roles. You’ve just got to do your role well.
Then I was able to go out and coach, and I’ve been coaching and messing around with the restaurant ever since, so it’s been fun.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the laugh about recruiting. Your recruits had to be able to bake a pizza and set a pick.
Rick Malnati: Again, they got paid more, just like the NIL money today. The best job made you a better player.
Kirk Bachmann: The whole career change, sort of, or finding balance in your careers, if you will, it’s not terribly uncommon to students – Escoffier students. Many leave one career and try another career. A lot of people enter the craft of cooking because they’ve always had a love for it, and then they find a reason to do it.
You’ve mentioned a few things, but at a very high level, were there some difficult pivots from being a high level operator with a lot of responsibility for the family? You didn’t just have a good run as a basketball coach; you had a phenomenal run at both schools where you coached. Are there some difficult pivots to try to work out?
Rick Malnati: I think the pivots came more internally. I was loving Malnati’s. I was loving it, but the reality is that I’m the younger brother. So I’m in the kitchen. My brother’s opening up the store. He’s telling me, “Hey, take care of the kitchen.”
The reality was that every time we opened up a restaurant, the quality of my life actually went down a little bit just because of the amount of energy it took to open up a restaurant. Again, being back in the kitchen, and that being my role, it was never my dream. My dream was not my dad’s dream, and maybe my mom’s dream, and my brother’s dream. My dream: I had a passion for sports and basketball. When you talk about kid’s switching and doing cooking, I think you’ve got to follow your passion a little bit. If you’re good at your passion, life’s going to turn out.
I think maybe I would have been a basketball coach out of college if I thought I could make money. But being a high school teacher and coach back in that day, I thought, “I went to college. I’m not going to make $15,000 a year. I want to make some money.” I think money got in the way a little bit of my thoughts. Instead of just, “If I do my passion, and I do it well….” And again, Malnati’s was my passion. I loved it. I loved our people, I loved our product. I loved everything about it. It became a basketball team to me, just like when I did pivot.
The pivot was leaving my brother and my mother. Leaving was the hard part. They told me, “Do what you’ve got to do. Live your life.” So it’s been great.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Thanks for that share. Go ahead, Jean.
Jean Malnati: He worked hard. Marc wasn’t always sure when he graduated from college. He had just graduated when Lou died. We had opened up out in Flossmoor. He was thrown out there and he was running Flossmoor. He was really having a rough time. I said, “Look, Rick just started college. Give me four years. If you give me four years until Rick gets out of college, then we’ll sit down and we’ll talk about it again and we’ll decide what we’re going to do. I need your help now.” He said, “Okay. That’s what I’ll do.”
It was a rough four years for him. We ended up, that was the first hard thing that I had to do after Lou died. It was 11 months later, I had to close Flossmoor.
Rick Malnati: Because my brother was running it into the ground.
Jean Malnati: No, he wasn’t.
Kirk Bachmann: You know Marc’s going to listen to this. At some point, he’s going to listen to this.
Jean Malnati: It was a problem with help. It was problems with ovens.
Rick Malnati: They did switch ovens, then. That was the one time. Everyone was going to be too smart, and they got electric ovens instead of gas. It was a tough spot.
Jean Malnati: The thing is that he was a young man, 22 years old, and he had these women working for him. All of a sudden they decided, “We’re older. We shouldn’t be taking orders from him.” It was hard for him. Besides that, the restaurant wasn’t doing very well. They just told me, “It’s pulling down Lincolnwood and Elk Grove. Every month it stays open, it’s pulling us down.” So I had to make the decision to close it.
That’s when Marc started doing his masterpiece of business. He drew up a schedule. We called all our vendors. We said, “We’re going to close Flossmoor.” We owed everybody money. He drew up this business schedule.
Our accountants are saying, “Just take bankruptcy.”
I said, “No. I am not taking bankruptcy. This is my son’s name.”
Rick Malnati: And these were all our friends, too, these people. We’re still doing business with them.
Jean Malnati: I said, “You don’t think that they’re going to add some money onto the other two places to get their money back? I’m not going to put that on my son’s to have bankruptcy in their name.”
Rick Malnati: We needed somebody to drive through that Flossmoor restaurant on the first day for good luck, and that never would have happened.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love the leadership. I could listen to you all day, Jean. I just want you both to know that Marc’s going to call me next week and ask to be on the podcast by himself.
Jean Malnati: It worked out. He drew up that business [schedule.] He had a little help, but he drew up that business schedule. We paid back every vendor, every person we owed money. Somewhere, we had it framed when we paid the last person.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great.
Jean Malnati: Because we were still doing business with them every week.
Kirk Bachmann: And it’s a great story for students that are listening. It’s perseverance. It’s not giving up. Working through it.
Rick Malnati: It’s not the only mistake we made, Flossmoor. As we were growing, we had opened up a pizza-by-the-slice store. We were doing so well at all these events in the city – ChicagoFest, Taste of Chicago. Minimizing our pizza. We’re taking our pizza, cutting it in four slices and being able to sell it for more than we sold the whole pizza for. So we said, “Hey, let’s open up a slice shop in the middle of the city.”
So we opened up a pizza-by-the-slice shop. We were jam busy from 11:30 to 12:30, then dead. It was like, “Oh, man.”
Kirk Bachmann: Now what?
Rick Malnati: Selling pizza by the slice.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh. Jean, I’ve read a lot about how you’ve always been with charities and giving back to the community. I believe, ultimately, honoring Lou through cancer research, which has raised millions to date. I’d like for you to speak a little bit about how important giving back – not only giving back to the community, but giving back in Lou’s name – is to you.
Jean Malnati: That’s an honor. We’re so happy that we can do it. We have the business and we have a way of doing it. And we have the people that we have access to. We have the customers. We have our friends. We have our vendors.
Rick Malnati: She’s being modest right now, because this has been a foundational piece of their business. They opened up in March of 1971. The restaurant was open eight months, and they start the first charity event where they close the restaurant for a day, and gave the money. There was a guy named Brian Piccolo that was a Chicago Bear and they did a “Let a Boy Continue.” It was prior to having money that my mom and dad started doing charity work.
I think that’s been a foundational piece of the restaurant that they’ve instilled in the restaurant. It’s not just that we do pizza. We do charity, too. We do service. That’s been built into every store. There’s a Jean Malnati Award where she gets out and presents the store that does the most service work at the end of the year in her name. My parents have always, always given back. Now there’s a brain tumor institute in their name in Chicago, the Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute at Northwestern, which is a top eight brain tumor institute in the country. It’s growing.
This is the coolest part, I think, of how things change. Brian Piccolo died of cancer. A few years later, my dad is diagnosed with cancer, and he passed away. The reason that they started to give money to Northwestern Hospital wasn’t because of anything Northwestern Hospital particularly did for my dad. It was because of one nurse. This one nurse –
Jean Malnati: Anne Bolger
Rick Malnati: They gave money to the nursing department because she would treat the family so well. It was a nurse that winds up being instrumental in, now, Northwestern getting huge dollars because of how this nurse treated my mother and our family.
Jean Malnati: When Lou had cancer, they didn’t have groups of people to come in and counsel you or anything like that. It was 1975 when he got cancer. When you went in the hospital, you didn’t go in for a day and come out; you were in there for a couple of weeks. They had a cancer floor. You got to know. When you’d go back, you’d see the same nurses. Of course, you had the same doctor. It was a little different. They were my support, and they were wonderful.
And I still see Annie.
I have another Annie I see.
Kirk Bachmann: Two Annies. What a beautiful story!
Jean Malnati: We originally started that “Let a Boy Continue.” We were giving a scholarship to Lake Forest and Johnny and Jeannie Morris – I don’t know if you remember those names. Johnny Morris played football for the Bears. Johnny’s still alive. He was at our charity last September. Johnny and Jeannie helped us set up. He said, “I’ll get the Bear players. You get the people.”
Kirk Bachmann: And the pizza, right.
Rick Malnati: And the alcohol.
Jean Malnati: “I’ll get the Bear players to come.” That’s how we started the charity. We had the Bears players come. It was mostly men that came. Then we finally started getting more women when I talked to the Bears’ wives. They said, “Have it on a Monday night, because they’re off. They’ll bring their families, and they’ll come because it’s the only night they’re off.”
Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant.
Jean Malnati: Having it on Mondays so they’d bring their families and they’d show up. Then, when Lou got cancer, then we added Brian Piccolo and Lou Malnati Cancer Night. We were making a little more money than we were giving to the university, so we started giving to Northwestern.
Kirk Bachmann: You were right, Rick. So humble. I just love that story. You don’t find some of that background on the internet. Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for all that work that you continued to do.
Jean Malnati: We’re talking about having recession and people now, and inflation. I can remember back when I was a kid.
Rick Malnati: Holy cow! Holy cow.
Kirk Bachmann: How much time do we have!
Jean Malnati: I remember my mother. They used to call them beggars. These men would come around, and they’d come to the back door. They’d ask you for food or for money. My mother, we didn’t have any money. She would never get money, but she would never let them go without feeding them. She would feed them. I used to accuse her later on. “They must have something painted on the outside of the building, because we get an awful lot of those people who come.”
Kirk Bachmann: Word of mouth.
Rick Malnati: It was a good restaurant.
Jean Malnati: I remember my mother and dad giving. Lou was born in Italy, so when he came over he was 17. He had a rough life. He was there during the war. He felt like he was giving back, too, I guess. It’s what he wanted to do.
Kirk Bachmann: So much wisdom today. That’s what I take away from our chat. So much history. You’re going to give him a hard time, aren’t you?
Before I let you go, thank you so much for spending the time. Feel free to have Marc call me.
Before I let both of you go, the name of this podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So I love to ask our guests, before we say goodbye, in your mind, what is the ultimate dish? I sense where the theme’s going to be, but I’m going to start with you, Jean. What is the ultimate dish?
Jean Malnati: The ultimate? Well, it’s pizza. Of course.
Rick Malnati: The ultimate deep dish.
Jean Malnati: I think I had to be talked into the thin crust. I was so used to the pan pizza over the years. Finally, I remember Rick coming home from college one time. He walked in the restaurant, and he was like his dad. He could walk into the restaurant and he knew what was going on, from the front door.
Kirk Bachmann: Because he’s taller than everyone.
Jean Malnati: We’ve got pepperoni. He said to me – this was after Lou died, “How come we’ve got pepperoni?” Because we never had pepperoni.
I said, “We don’t have pepperoni because I like it. We have it because the people are asking for it. If they’re going to go someplace else to get pepperoni, we might as well have it.” He was a little upset.
“Dad never wanted pepperoni.”
Rick Malnati: No pepperoni.
Kirk Bachmann: So the ultimate dish is NOT pepperoni. Not pepperoni.
Jean Malnati: Not for me. I usually have onion and green pepper. I have my sweet onions.
Rick Malnati: There we go.
Kirk Bachmann: Sweet onions. Yep. Thin or thick?
Jean Malnati: I have Vidalia onions during the season, or I get the other sweet onions and they put them on my pizza for me.
Kirk Bachmann: Is it still thick? You go with the thick versus the thin?
Jean Malnati: I like thin crust. I like thin crust.
Rick Malnati: We’re watching her weight.
Kirk Bachmann: How about you, Rick? Ultimate dish?
Rick Malnati: I am a spinach and mushroom guy, with a little easy tomato, butter crust, well done. You order it well done, and the crust – that buttery, flaky flavor. The best.
Kirk Bachmann: Thin or thick?
Rick Malnati: Oh, deep dish.
Kirk Bachmann: Deep all the way. 25 minutes, three minutes to make, 25 minutes to bake. I love it.
Rick Malnati: You got it.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely love it.
Can I just say thank you again? You’re spectacular. This was a true honor. I’m going to call my dad, who’s 86, and my mom, who’s 82, and tell them that we talked.
Rick Malnati: Ship them some pizzas out, from Taste of Chicago.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to hit you up on that. We’ve got to celebrate. This was spectacular. Thank you so much.
Jean Malnati: It was nice speaking with you.
Kirk Bachmann: So nice to speak to you.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.