My culinary journey, and a peek at what’s to come

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Ron Onesti stopped by the WGN studios on Jan. 31, 2024, for a segment on the Daytime Chicago show, where he demonstrated his own lasagna roll-up recipe, talked about his history of Italian cooking and teased the upcoming opening of Rock ‘N Ravioli restaurant in St. Charles.
Courtesy of Ron Onesti

BACKSTAGE with the Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti

It’s been another long day! I did a cooking segment on WGN TV this morning, which meant I had to prep it last night until about 2 a.m.! Yes, cooking segment! I prepared a recipe of what I call “Sunday Dinner Lasagna Rolls,” topped with my Bolognese Sauce. I gotta say, it was pretty darn good, for a rock ‘n roller!

I would not call myself a chef, as there are those who have pledged their lives to the culinary arts and have the schooling to back it up. However, I began my love for food service at an early age. It all started with four lemonade stands I had on the corners surrounding my block and the next one over at the age of 9 (I could cross alleys but wasn’t allowed to cross the street). I “hired” friends to sell the 25-cent drinks as I provided the Wyler’s lemonade packets and Dixie cups paying them 10 cents a glass.

When I turned 12 my dad got me a job at an iconic Jewish delicatessen in Oak Park called The Onion Roll. I spent 12 years there going from busboy to deli man and breakfast cook, honing my knife and sauté skills. I then combined that with old school techniques and recipes from my mom, aunts, and other influences in my life. I was romantically hooked to the kitchen!

As I attended the DePaul University College of Commerce in downtown Chicago, I found myself with a big gap in my schedule. The city of Chicago came out with these special food concessions licenses at the time for food carts on State Street. I got lucky and was awarded one of those licenses. I had a pushcart built that allowed me to stand inside of it. There was this ad I found in a magazine that had a picture of this “Li’l Orbit” mini doughnut maker. I purchased that and a Mr. Coffee machine, named the cart, “Ronnie’s on State” and I was in the doughnut biz!

So every morning I would push this cart out of a garage near State Street to my location in front of the Chas. A. Stevens Building, 29 N. State St. I would sell a bag of six mini doughnuts and a cup of coffee for $2 to the morning hurriers and hustlers. Then I would be in class by 10 a.m. That paid for my first two years of college.

Just to see if the food biz was my cup of tea, I took a position with the food service division of Walgreens, “Wags” Restaurant. I became the Graveyard Shift Manager from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. That lasted only six months, but I did learn quite a bit about structure and process in the restaurant biz! I also got quite the education from well overserved hungry post-disco dancers.

Festivals in Chicago started to become a “thing” in the ’80s. Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne began these neighborhood ethnic festivals at various parks. When she did an Italian Festival at Jacob Riis Park near my neighborhood, I was in!

I sold frozen bananas, and I could not keep up! The dollar bills piled up and I was convinced this was the biz to be in! That was until I went “all in” at the next festival at the Ford City Shopping Mall about a month later. My excitement about all those dollar bills that were going to pile up that weekend blinded me to the possibility that it may rain a day or two of the four-day festival. I peeled and froze THOUSANDS of fresh bananas for the four weeks leading up to the event. The event opening came and it did not rain one or two of the days … it rained ALL FOUR! To this day there are frozen bananas from that event lurking in freezers all around the city!

After I got into the theater business with The Arcada, I opened a white-tablecloth restaurant called “The Onesti Dinner Club” just a few blocks away. It was a 160-year-old church turned into an Italian steakhouse. I hosted many of our theater guests for dinners there before shows for about three years. Then the economic downfall of 2008 came, and the restaurant went!

I ventured off to open a few more places. There was Rock ‘N Ravioli and the Evanston Rocks Music Hall, Club 210 in Highwood and Be Bop A Lula’s Rockabilly Café in Union, Illinois. They were fabulous and themed places of food, fun and music. But the times became tough, the pandemic and economic downfall drove a nail in those coffins and the venues became wonderful memories.

2016 was the 90th birthday of The Arcada Theatre. In honor of its birth during the “Roaring Twenties,” I wanted to create a Speakeasy-style experience in the building. What began as kind of an exhibit of early Arcada memorabilia and a bar that would seat six, evolved into the Club Arcada Speakeasy and Restaurant, seating 200 guests with several rooms, a stage and dance floor, 200 antiques, original art, a fabulous menu, flapper girls, newsboys and a décor that people flipped over!

Since COVID, we renovated the Arcada and Des Plaines Theatres, and reopened Club Arcada. I am about to go full time with our other venues in St. Charles and Des Plaines as they are all open just during shows at the moment. They include BarCada Gaming Saloon, Rock ‘N Za Pizza & Pinball Experience, Rock ‘N Ravioli Italian Restaurant and Bar, Studio 64 Dance Club, Big Al’s Tavern, Bourbon ‘N Brass Speakeasy, Des Pizza, and the Little Italy Café on Harlem Avenue. So much happening!

How blessed am I? My world has become based on music and meatballs! As I sit here having a glass of lemonade while I write this, I think of that very first glass. The 50-plus-year journey from that glass to this one has been storied and a roller coaster of a ride! The only difference is the vodka in today’s glass.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp., the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles and the Des Plaines Theatre. Celebrity questions and comments? Email [email protected].

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