Meet the dedicated businesswoman and the family behind this Rockford favorite, which some have compared to the tops in Chicago.
Talia Castrogiovanni’s father tried to talk her out of opening a restaurant.
“I told her that it’s a lifestyle, it’s not a job,” says Nick Castrogiovanni.
Good thing daughter didn’t listen to dear old dad.
Five years ago, Talia opened Ciao Bella, 6500 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park, Ill., a popular Italian restaurant that its owners compare to Francesca’s on Taylor and The Rosebud, two well-known Italian spots in Chicago.
“They’re cute restaurants,” Talia says. “It’s like stepping into someone’s living room.”
Talia’s family is well versed in the food business. Her great-grandfather started a meat market in 1919, which later became Hilander Foods. In 1977, her grandfather opened Giovanni’s, which Nick managed for 12 years, before selling it to relatives in 1989. Talia worked at Hilander during high school and various restaurants during college.
At 24, she fulfilled her dream of opening a place of her own. “Our plan was to create a niche,” says Talia, whose staff includes her parents and siblings. “We wanted to offer original, Italian food at affordable prices. We felt it was important to have the best cuisine, and keep it budget friendly for everyone.”
Lunch and dinner specialties include pizza, pasta, salads and seafood. Among popular entrees is chicken marsala, which is breaded chicken topped with a mushroom marsala sauce, served on a bed of linguine tossed with tomatoes, spinach, garlic and olive oil. There’s also salmon Izzabella, grilled and topped with a light lemon cream sauce, chopped asparagus, capers, tomatoes and a side of garlic allioli linguini.
“We serve home-cooked Italian food with deep red sauces, hardy soups and homemade pastas,” Talia says. “Our tomato sauces start here in the kitchen.”
For lunch, Ciao Bella offers a $7 sandwich and endless soup. “We’re known for express lunches,” says Talia. “Business people can get their meal within 10 minutes and still make it back to work within the hour.”
Ciao Bella also serves gluten-free and vegan options. There’s a children’s menu; all kids get a scoop of gelato, an Italian ice cream, following their meal. Specials are offered nightly.
Talia pays particular attention to her customers’ requests. It was her clientele, she says, who asked for and received chicken salad sandwiches, salmon salads and hamburger salads.
The décor at Ciao Bella is warm and inviting. The walls are finished in faux fresco and painted in rich gold and burgundy. Tables and chairs are cinnamon oak. Recessed, track and pendant lighting enhance the atmosphere, while soft music, mixed with table chatter, completes the soothing ambiance.
“I wanted a place that was cozy and comfortable,” Talia says.
The bar and dining area seats about 120 guests, and a private dining room, which also serves as a wine room, can accommodate 60. The newest addition to the restaurant is a wall of fame that showcases plenty of photos of happy customers enjoying time spent over a good meal and conversation.
Ciao Bella has recently seen a spike in customers who stop in after a workout at Peak Fitness and other nearby health clubs. New businesses along East Riverside Boulevard, such as auto dealerships and health care facilities, have also helped to draw in new crowds. Customers range in age from 18 to 80.
“Our customers are amazing,” Talia says. “In Rockford, you live off of word of mouth. It’s fun to see new people. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t come in for the first time. That’s what’s so great about this business. Around here, no two days are the same.”
Ciao Bella is open Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 5-9 p.m.