Anyone who’s moved far away from their hometown knows it’s often the little things you miss most — the scent of a certain flower, the sound of a particular accent or the taste of a food you can’t get anyplace else. For Joe and Arlene Mantegna, that feeling was a driving force behind the creation of Taste Chicago in Burbank, which brings the flavor of their native Windy City to the community that’s been their home for nearly three decades.
“When we moved here, I couldn’t get Italian beef, and I couldn’t even get a Chicago Vienna dog, which is the best hot dog in the world,” says Arlene. “I would make Italian beef sandwiches for our friends who came over to watch the Super Bowl. It was everybody’s favorite: ‘Oh, you should sell this.’ I love to cook, and I’m a good cook, and it was a dream to have a restaurant.”
In 2003, she decided to make her dream a reality. She hired a friend from high school, fellow Chicagoan Josephine Williams, as the manager and they built the restaurant from scratch. “This was an ice cream place before, and I had to buy the ice cream business to get the space,” Arlene recalls. “We started with just the hot dogs, because that was the easiest.” Eventually, in addition to serving her famous Italian beef, she developed recipes for other Chicago favorites like deep-dish pizza, spaghetti and meatballs.
Arlene also came up with the idea of offering heart-shaped pizzas in custom-made pans for Valentine’s Day, which became so popular they’re now offered year-round — a fitting symbol, since it’s clear the business is a true labor of love for everyone involved. Arlene proudly describes how then-14-year-old daughter Gia provided her own cash register when the restaurant first opened and trained the whole staff how to use it, and daughter Mia contributes her talent for numbers to help current general manager Jackie Sowards (who was the Mantegnas’ nanny when the children were younger and stepped in to help run the restaurant after Williams retired) with payroll. “My employees are wonderful, that’s why I’m still in business,” says Arlene. “That and my husband — he’s a tremendous support. He loves to come here and a lot of our friends come here. It’s just been so much fun.”
Regular customers include celebrities — especially on Fridays, when it’s become traditional for Chicago comedians and actors to gather there — as well as sports fans who come to watch Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and Cubs games. “I watched the Cubs win the World Series there in 2016 and I’ll never forget it,” remembers Joe. “It was the next best thing to being with the team, because I was around all these expatriate Chicagoans here in L.A., all in this one spot, and when they won, the place went berserk. The Cubs had offered a ticket for me to come to Cleveland to see the game there, and I said, ‘You know what? I think I should watch it with the fans who have been coming to our restaurant year after year.’”
“We have a good, loyal group of Chicagoans that come,” adds manager Bobby Hill, also born and raised in Chicago. “It’s nice to have a place that’s like home here. I get people in here who haven’t been back to Chicago in 15 years, and this is the only connection to that home that they’ve got.”
Asked about his favorite thing on the menu, Joe comes back to the Italian beef that started it all. “It’s like Philadelphia cheesesteak to Philadelphia — the thing that’s unique to that city, one of those things that you can’t get anywhere else, so you get a craving for it. The only way you’re going to get it is a place like ours.”
To learn more about the Mantegnas, read our interview “Loving the Ride.” And for profiles of two more local couples who’ve extended their romantic partnerships into the restaurant world, check out “Marrying Love and Business.”