Dining A La King: For 50 years the Iavagnilios have made Michaelâs an Elkhart dining destination
One family has run a place called Michael's or The 19th Hole for the last 50 years. That's just the beginning of the story that's as rich as their family recipe for tomato sauce. On May 5, 1959, Michael Iavagnilio Sr. took over a bar at 528 Harrison St., Elkhart. He'd been born upstairs 31 years earlier and lived upstairs with his wife, Janet, and four children.
One family has run a place called Michael's or The 19th Hole for the last 50 years.
That's just the beginning of the story that's as rich as their family recipe for tomato sauce.
On May 5, 1959, Michael Iavagnilio Sr. took over a bar at 528 Harrison St., Elkhart. He'd been born upstairs 31 years earlier and lived upstairs with his wife, Janet, and four children.
Michael Sr. had worked at Nicky D's and Minelli's, both Italian restaurants on Harrison Street where the families settled. Michael had come from Foggia in 1905 and bought Lloyd's Grocery Store in 1920. Two of his sons turned it into a bar after the grocery store closed.
He took over a place his grandfather opened as a bar in 1934 after Prohibition. His two uncles had operated it, too. When they wanted out of the business, Michael Sr.'s grandfather, also called Michael, gave it to him to run.
That first day 50 years ago, Michael Sr. sold $71.60 in beer, wine and liquor and $4.30 of food at Mike's 19th Hole. The second day, the total was $113.90. It got better from there.
Janet would make soup every morning. They also served beef sandwiches. In 1963, they remodeled, bought restaurant equipment, expanded the menu, and changed the name to Michael's Italian Restaurant, family members said.
From that first menu, a plate of pasta cost $2.25 and a T-bone steak was $4.25. Prices have gone up with the times, but Michael's remains a place where you get a lot of good food for not a lot of money.
Michael's had a tiny kitchen, a stage, and a dance floor by the front window. "We used to serve food here until 2 o'clock in the morning," Janet said.
It was one of the happening spots for dozens of families that lived on Harrison Street. Italian-owned restaurants and Ronzone's Bakery fed them. Huge gardens grew in nearly every yard. On Sundays, you could smell tomato sauce cooking and in the fall the street smelled of fermenting grapes as families made wine. Parents looked after not only their own children; if you got in trouble down the street, your parents found out. Michael Sr. remembers hopping freight trains to shorten the walk to school at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.
It was on this street that the Iavagnilios grew up. All but one of Michael Sr. and Janet's children were born in the apartment above the restaurant. Rico, the youngest and only one who wasn't, lives there now with his family and has since 1990.
Janet said she learned to cook from "from all these Italian ladies" in the neighborhood.
Janet and Michael's children grew up playing in and helping in the restaurant. Rico remembers sliding down the beer chute from behind the bar to the basement. "Just like I did," Michael Sr. said.
"I used to bartend when I was 10 years old," said Rico.
"Wash glasses," Michael Jr. quickly corrected him, laughing.
Michael Sr. said the Harrison Street restaurant is their second home. He's 80 now. "I thought I'd retire, but I never did," he said.
He works 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. He makes bread and soup, and eats a bit. He answers the phone, which rings plenty.
Though the neighborhood has changed, the Iavagnilios continue to operate Michael's. All eight of the children worked in the restaurant. Four of them still do. Son Rico operates the second location on the northeast side of town with his wife, Mary Ann. Michael Jr. helps at both places and with the business's books. Daughter Michele manages the Harrison Street location, and Nancy is a waitress several nights a week.
"It's a passion you have to have," Rico said of the restaurant business. During tough economic times, they're careful about spending and keep working hard.
"You don't get rich doing it, but you make a good living," Michael Jr. said.
Their regulars continue to travel to Harrison Street to eat at the old restaurant. It's a destination now, not just a place down the street.
The landscape around the restaurant, and in the restaurant business, has changed. The Iavagnilios have found a way to change with it.
Their pizza is great, in part because Michael Sr. cleans the oven every week. It's broken down less in 50 years than the new oven at the second restaurant did in the first year.
For 50 years, this family has sustained a restaurant.
Nearly all the other Italians that lived on Harrison Street have moved away. The businesses are gone, too. But they remain. They found a way to continue, through hard work, appreciation for their customers, and love for each other and what they do.
Bob Minichillo, who was there the other day for lunch with his brother Nick, has been one of those regulars. "It's a good place. Good family. He'll be here another 50 years if he wants to," Bob said.
"It just makes you feel really good. It's really gratifying," Janet said of the customer support for their business.
"It's our life," Michael Sr. said.
That's really the American dream, isn't it?