Leona’s Pizzeria Inc.

For Leona’s Pizzeria Inc., food is not only a business, but also a point of pride, President Andrew Dickman says. Based in Chicago, the company operates 12 restaurants that serve more than 65 items made from scratch, including pizzas, ribs, salads, lasagnas, burgers and sandwiches.

Co-owner Sam Toia says his grandmother, Leona Toia, founded the company in the early 1950s as a mom-and-pop pizzeria. “It was one of the only places doing delivery at the time,” he says.

In the 1960s, Toia’s father, Leonard Toia, assumed control of Leona’s and turned it into a restaurant business. To­day, Leona’s employs a staff of 600 and also offers catering services. In addition, it has two locations for its Hop Haus concept, which specializes in serv­ing gourmet burgers.

Dickman, who helped develop The Hop Haus, notes that it sells burgers made from wild game, like wild boar, ostrich and range-fed buffalo, to name a few. “We also have wonderful sliders – filet mignon sliders [and] grilled chicken sliders, cheeseburger sliders and wild sliders,” he says.

One of the keys to Leona’s success, Dickman notes, is the amount of care the company puts into its food. “We have our own commissary where we produce 70 percent of the items from our restaurants,” he says. “Soups, sauces, dressings and breadings [are] all made from scratch on a daily basis.”

Dickman adds that Leona’s food is a good fit for health-conscious customers, with its salads, homemade vegetarian burger, hormone-free chick­en and pizzas, which are made with the freshest ingredients.

Toia, who is the chairman of Illinois Restaurant Association, agrees.

“There’s no question [that the] mood of the country is now clean food,” he says. “Leona’s wants to be at the forefront of that.”

Loyal Members

Dickman praises Leona’s loyal staff, which includes workers who have been with the company for more than 25 years. “We involve them when we are making decisions at the store level,” he explains. “It’s really more of a family run operation.”

Its key associates include Corporate Kitchen Manager Jose Luis Vasuesz, who joined the company 12 years ago at the age of 18. “He has the pulse of the kitchen,” Toia stresses. “He’s got a great following.”

Evolving Leona’s

Leona’s is currently changing its marketing efforts. Although the company is “a recognized, strong brand” in the Chicago market the chain has focused on marketing to a new demographic through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

In addition, the company contacts more than 70,000 customers through weekly email promotions. “We are taking what [our employees have done by] building their loyalty and [now are] communicating with them,” he says.

Leona’s also plans to make changes to its menu. “We are going to roll out a breakfast segment at all of our locations to take place on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays,” Dickman says. “We are going to embark [on it] in the next month or so.”

Surviving the Economy

When coping with the economic downturn, Dickman says Leona’s has strived to focus on its internal operations and strengthen itself from within. “[We have been] taking a look at what we can improve on as a company, and what we do very well,” he says, naming consolidation or streamlining of products and purchasing as two examples.

“We definitely have advantages among our competitors [in distribution],” he says. “[These have] definitely been competitive advantages for us in these down times.”

Looking ahead, Toia says he wants to make changes that will improve Leona’s operations for the better. However, he asserts that these changes are not going to be anything drastic.

“[We want to] make sure we’re giving the most fresh, hot food,” he says. “The outlook now is one customer at a time, so they come back to us when they want to eat.”