HEART OF CHICAGO — La Fontanella’s owners are retiring and closing the restaurant’s doors for good after decades of serving authentic Italian cuisine on Oakley Street.
For 34 years, husband-and-wife team Gianfranco “Franco” and Maria Gamberale served fresh, traditional Italian dishes like chicken Vesuvio, eggplant Parmigiana and lasagna Bolognese. From the broths to the sauces and soups, everything was made from scratch, the couple said.
Before setting foot inside the restaurant, loyal clientele knew La Fontanella wasn’t a spot for a quick bite — it “was a place where people would stay for about an hour-and-a-half to two hours,” said Franco Gamberale, 79.
The couple is retiring after selling the building that houses the restaurant at 2414 S. Oakley Ave. It’s possible the new owner will lease the space out for a new restaurant, the couple said.
Franco, who grew up in Italy and spent his teenage years in Argentina, arrived in Chicago at 23 and started working as a dishwasher. In time, he moved from busboy to waiter, to captain to management at various restaurants, including the Signature Room in the John Hancock building and the Hyatt Regency.
Maria graduated from the Washburne Culinary School before they opened their first restaurant, Gianfranco, in Old Town.
Facing steep rent, the couple closed their first restaurant in 1986 and purchased La Fontanella, which originally opened in 1971. They worked and raised their children in the apartments above the restaurant on the corner of Oakley Avenue and 24th Street.
Inside La Fontanella, photos of celebrities and politicians who have dined at the restaurant still hang on the walls, including ones of Leonard Nimoy, Adlai Stevenson and John Wayne. Photos of Auronzo di Cadore, the part of Italy where Franco grew up, also adorn the walls.
The couple participated in Oakley Fest Pasta Vino Italian Street Festival for 26 years and raised their children and grandchildren, who worked alongside them at the restaurant.
“Chicago’s Best” featured La Fontanella’s lasagna in 2017.
The Gamberales decided to sell the building and the restaurant before the pandemic. Days before the restaurant shut down in mid-March, the couple had an interested buyer who ultimately backed out.
But the Gamberales said there were no hard feelings, especially given the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“I don’t blame him,” said Maria Gamberale, 77.
“Of course,” her husband said. “We had no idea how long [the shutdown] would be. Why would someone buy it if they could not use it?”
The closing is bittersweet. When the Gramberales first opened on Oakley Street, there were dozens of Italian restaurants on the strip. Three decades later, only four or five Italian restaurants remain on the block, they said.
But after “working hard for so long”, it’s time for the two to take a break, Franco said.
Maria agreed but said she still had “mixed feelings letting this place go … . It feels like it’s my baby, like if it’s one of our children.”
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