Italian House plans move to nearby vacated Hardee's

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
— A popular eastside Janesville restaurant is moving, but its followers won’t have to go far to find it.

Edmund Halabi, owner of the Italian House Restaurant at 463 S. Randall Ave., is buying the Hardee’s on East Racine Street that closed its doors over the weekend.

The Hardee’s property is next door to Halabi’s restaurant, which for years has been a daily lunch routine for underclassmen at Craig High School.

After he buys the property later this month, Halabi will remodel the store’s interior and exterior. His capacity—best described as cramped on Randall Avenue—will double, and he’ll have a coveted drive-up window when the new restaurant opens this summer.

After 20 years of steady growth, the new location is a dream for Halabi, who first opened his restaurant for a short stint on Milton Avenue.

“I can remember when we started, my wife and I and our young child sleeping on the floor, hoping we’d never see another bounced check,” he said. “I never dreamed I’d be in this position, but it’s been a success over time.”

Halabi rattles off the statistics on the difficulty in running a restaurant, particularly a small family operation. He, too, came close to bankruptcy in the Italian House’s infancy.

“My problem was that Janesville didn’t grow up with a culture for Italian food,” he said. “I was trying to sell Italian to Norwegians and Germans.

“Everybody kept asking for fish fries, hamburgers and pizza.”

For the last 20 years, Halabi’s niche has been in pasta, Gondola sub sandwiches and bread.

Neighboring Craig students certainly have helped him fill that niche. Each day, between 100 and 150 students flood the Italian House for the daily special, which at $4 is twice as much as it was 20 years ago. With lunch period minutes precious, students are guaranteed their food seconds after ordering

Most of the students are ninth- and tenth-graders, those too young to drive off campus for lunch. Italian House also provides Gondolas to Craig’s in-house lunch program, as well as offerings for programs at several Janesville parochial schools.

In describing his success, Halabi turns the discussion into one about pot roast.

“You grow up eating your mom’s pot roast, and for the rest of your life all other pot roast is compared to your mom’s,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky in that we have a location right next to a high school that has an open campus. Kids have grown up eating our food, grown up loyal to our food, and they continue to come back as adults.

“For two years of their lives, these kids are eating the same sauces and same breads five days a week. They are very dedicated, very loyal.”

Halabi said he won’t lose that personal connection with his customers when the larger restaurant opens.

“My customers have been asking me for some time to expand,” he said. “I think they appreciate seeing a small business blossom over time.

“Nothing too big, too fast.”

Last updated: 9:10 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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