When internationally beloved pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci opened his first U.S. location in 2017 in Chicago, investors and fans of the fabled Roman slices imagined a country with Bonci Pizzerias all across America. Now, six years later, reps are shifting gears saying they’re focusing on expansion within the Chicago area and should next week debut a new location on the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview near the Chicago River.
“People are coming from Schaumburg, Naperville, from all over the suburbs to come [to West Loop],” says Bonci USA Director of Operations Chakib Touhami.
The late Anthony Bourdain raved about the rectangle pizzas which were unlike anything America had tasted with a light and airy crust and creative toppings. Bonci, whose avatar is a large and lovable cartoon character, often scaling skyscrapers like King Kong, did not find as much stateside success as anticipated. The Chicago location in West Loop thrived. A second location, in Wicker Park, closed in June 2020 after about two years. Locations in New Orleans and Miami never had a chance due to the pandemic.
Bonci’s famous pizza al taglio provides a deli-like experience. Customers wander to the display case and order by the inch from the daily selections as employees cut slices with scissors. Bonci, who’s featured on an episode of Netflix’s The Chef’s Table, opened his first location in 2003 in Rome. Chicago was his first location outside of Italy. Touhami draws a parallel between the Rome and Chicago locations saying none of the expansion locations have enjoyed the success of the originals.
The pizzeria has adjusted to American tastes. When they opened six years ago, the mission was to provide an authentic Italian experience. That meant sacrificing America’s favorite topping: pepperoni. Americans would have to learn to love soppressata. The plan backfired, and now, with Bonci’s blessing, pepperoni is on the menu: “It can be sometimes intimidating,” Touhami admits, adding that Bonci has even added a Chicago-style Italian beef pie.
Most of the display case is also filled with vegetarian options. The pandemic also forced investors to explore delivery which is now offered. Bonci’s American partners have also partnered with Dom’s Kitchen & Market, a new Chicago chain of grocery stores with food courts. Shoppers can find Bonci inside Dom’s two locations and Bonci plans on being part of future stores.
As they continue their relationship with Dom’s, Bonci will also open new locations employing a new strategy. Touhami says they’re focusing on opening neighborhood stores and locations in Chicago’s suburbs. He’s currently looking at downtown Naperville as a possible location. They’re even pursuing a location at O’Hare International Airport.
It’s a strategy suggested by one of the company’s investors, a famous name when it comes to chain expansions. Touhami says Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Champaign-based sandwich chain Jimmy John’s, backed the idea of concentrating on the Chicago area. The first location that will reflect that strategy should open next week at 1855 W. Diversey Parkway. There are no tourist attractions or shopping centers nearby. While automobile traffic stacks up along Diversey during rush hour, this is a residential neighborhood without the foot traffic of West Loop or Wicker Park. Bonci in West Loop is regularly slammed with to-go orders from customers on the North Side, Touhami adds. A new location will alleviate that.
While Wicker Park had plenty of customers, they spent about 30 percent less compared to West Loop. Touhami sees families spending more during dinner hours, and that spells success: “If we do the same volume in Wicker Park at this new location, it’s a slam dunk.” he says.
Bonci, 1855 W. Diversey Parkway, planned to open in mid-July.