Pizza has “officially” been in the Peoria area for 70 years. That is according to its first listing, in the 1950 phonebook, for Romane’s Italian Foods, an establishment specializing in pizza, spaghetti and ravioli. I am fairly certain, however, that it was being made in the homes of some residents perhaps several years or more earlier.
I have determined from my research that pizza parlors were first advertised throughout the United States in the early 20th century—and were especially prevalent on the East Coast. In fact, a coworker whose father moved to Peoria in 1946, after his service in World War II, taught his new bride how to make the delicacy he had become familiar with growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Pizza was unknown to his wife until this introduction. Speaking of World War II, it is known that many servicemen who spent time in Italy were introduced to what was referred to as “Neapolitan pizza.” Their affection for the dish surely led to its proliferation in mid-century America… and in Peoria.
Peoria’s Earliest Pizza Makers
By most accounts, the first Peoria establishment to serve pizza was Romane’s on South Adams in the late 1940s. Across the river in East Peoria, Davis Bros. started serving about the same time. According to Tony Agatucci of Agatucci’s Restaurant, it is agreed that Romane’s was the first and they were the second. The exact year is uncertain, but it was sometime between 1948 and 1950 that Agatucci’s Tap Room on University Street started serving pizza. While Romane’s has been gone for over 50 years, any reader who has spent time in Peoria knows that Agatucci’s still serves pizza—and is quite famous for it. Depending on who you ask, the legacy of the original Davis Bros. also continues in two locations: Larry’s Driftwood in Creve Coeur and Davis Bros. in East Peoria.
Many taverns, restaurants and pizza parlors have baked and served pizza in the Peoria area since 1950. Many also have come and gone. I wasn’t around for those earliest days in Peoria, but I was here for the second generation. My first recollection is from the early 1970s, stopping by the original Davis Bros. in East Peoria with my parents to pick up a to-go pizza. I also remember having frozen Armato’s pizzas at home. If memory serves, we often had them on the nights my dad would go to his men’s club meetings. It wasn’t until decades later that I discovered Armato’s had a storefront operation. To this day, I consider Armato’s my favorite frozen pizza. Perhaps my memory is clouded by nostalgia… but I don’t think so.
Armato’s was one of four pizza makers listed when pizza first appeared as a separate category in the Peoria phonebook in 1955, joining Agatucci’s, Café Sorento and Romane’s. Neither Café Sorento nor Romane’s were still listed five years later, but there was a listing for Palanza Pizzeria in Sunnyland. Palanza’s is still in business today, and I can personally say they also have a memorable pizza pie. Some of the others listed, based on social media comments, were well-loved by the locals—and the following two appear to have had legions of followers: Pizza De-lite on Abington and Pizza Palace on Starr.
By the 1970s, the number of pizza establishments had grown to include a few chains and franchise operations. Though not locally-based, they still live on in the memories of locals. One that first comes to mind, for me, is Shakey’s Pizza Parlor & Ye Public House on University. Shakey’s was known for its many varieties of pizza and its unique atmosphere, which included live entertainment. I will never forget the first time I walked into Shakey’s and saw banjo players and a player piano—a surreal experience for a young person!
Pizza Hut had also arrived by this time—and it even had a regional distribution center in Peoria, built around 1970. Another chain favorite was the Pizza Inn, located on Sterling. Its legacy lives on at Tavern 41, a relatively new pizza place operated by the Herold family, who had the original Pizza Inn franchise at the same location. Going to the Pizza Inn was also quite memorable for me as a child—not so much for the pizza, but for the small arcade contained within. Tavern 41 continues this tradition with an arcade of its own.
There is another area pizza franchise that survives today, but only at a single location. Although it has been in my hometown of Morton since I was young, I never knew until recently that it once had locations all over central Illinois, including one in Peoria on North University. The lone surviving Pegasus Pizza is known for its “Imperial Pizza” and speedy delivery service. According to owner Brian Ritchey, when the other locations started adding to their menu, they lost their quality and focus. Pegasus has been in Morton since 1975.
While the 1960s saw the advent of the pizza franchise in Peoria, this did not appear to dissuade new, single-location pizza places from opening. Listed in the 1970s phonebooks were many new additions from the previous decade, including some popular establishments that still come up today in conversation, or are still around in one form or another. They include Avanti’s, The Flamingo, LaHood’s and Penguin Tap.
A Pair of Standouts
Phonebooks in the 1980s showcased even more pizza establishments in the area, both chains and homegrown. They include two standouts that opened in the mid-1970s worth highlighting. The first is Leonardo’s on War Memorial, which I vividly remember for its atmosphere, which appeared exotic to me as a kid. Everything seemed dark and what I imagined as foreign, from the signage to the faux grapes overhead in the dining area. I also believe I had my first experience with live music in a restaurant at Leonardo’s. I don’t remember what the pizza was like that first time, but I have grown to appreciate it—especially the deep-dish variety, which was something I had never experienced before. Leonardo’s has gone through some changes over the decades and is now a subset of La Gondola.
But Leonardo’s was not the first to serve deep-dish, according to advertisements from a nearby competitor. The Peoria Pizza Works on Prospect Road claimed not only to have the first deep-dish pizza in the area, but also the area’s first stuffed pizza. It is claimed that the owner at the time had scouted out Chicago restaurants, observed the stuffed pizza being made, and brought the concept back to Peoria. In fact, some cursory research shows that Peoria Pizza Works was not far behind some of the first Chicago establishments that have become famous for their stuffed pizzas. It was also a standout for its environment and retains its distinctiveness to this day.
Origins of Tiger Sauce
The first few decades of pizza in Peoria saw many establishments come and go, yet many are still with us today. Still, only one has been in the same family, at the same location, for close to 70 years. Agatucci’s is a Peoria landmark, with rich folklore to go along with its longevity. One fact I learned while talking to Tony Agatucci was with regard to their famous “Tiger Sauce.” This unique salad dressing, served in a bottle at each table, is perhaps better known as a condiment for Agatucci’s pizza. According to Tony, it was named sometime in the 1960s. As the Agatucci family was looking for bottles to hold their miracle concoction, they contacted the George Pasquel Company and were sold bottles on clearance. Tony described them as opaque, with (you guessed it!) a tiger on them and a label that proclaimed “Tiger Sauce.” PM