Restaurateur adding flavor to Janesville
Family: Wife, Karen; children, Ashley, 26; Brandon, 18; and Jordan, 14
Heritage: Halabi's parents were both Lebanese, but he was born and raised in Liberia, where his father was a merchant. He grew up speaking the official language of Liberia, English.
The Gondola's secret: It's the bread. It's based on the bread baked at the Italian restaurants Halabi worked in while a student in Peoria, Ill. But Halabi makes it sweeter, which he says compliments the salty, smoky tastes of the sandwich's meat and cheeses.
Favorite Italian House food: Oven-roasted Gondola
Favorite other food: A Middle Eastern dinner including grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, tabouli (a salad whose main ingredients are cracked wheat and parsley), cabbage rolls and hummus
Person he most admires: The late Ken Hendricks. Hendricks and his family patronized the Italian House from its earliest days, long before Hendricks became a billionaire. The two businessmen became friends, and Halabi catered parties at Hendricks' house. Hendricks would often invite Halabi to lunch, but the Italian House lunch rush never permitted it. Halabi regrets it to this day.
Favorite movie: "The Godfather" and its sequels
Lesson in loyalty: To this day, Halabi has the $9,000 in bad checks he wrote to his food supplier. The supplier, Avanti Foods of Walnut, Ill., gave him time to pay it back, and he did, eventually. He's gotten lots of offers from suppliers over the years, but he has stuck by the one who stuck by him in hard times.
JANESVILLE Edmund Halabi's eyes twinkle when he talks about food.
It could be the African and Lebanese food he ate as a child growing up in Liberia.
Or his own creation: the 17-inch sub sandwich that has endeared his Italian House restaurant to thousands of Janesvillians.
Halabi came to Janesville 21 years ago with an idea: bring Italian dining to a city that knew little more than pizza, steak, hamburgers and fish fry.
Today, it would be hard to imagine Janesville without him.
For two decades, the Italian House has been packed each weekday with customers from next-door Craig High School. Students literally grew up on Halabi's pasta, sauce and Gondolas.
The restaurant now has drive-up service, supplies Gondolas to the Woodman's grocery story and caters widely. It also supplies lunch programs at Craig and the Catholic schools.
There's even a Facebook group with 834 members, who all think Italian House is "fricken awesome."
Success was not immediate. Halabi, his wife and 4-year-old son slept on the floor of his original restaurant on Milton Avenue for nine months, he said.
He worked as a lab technician to supplement his income, but still he couldn't pay his bills.
"I think people were taking bets on me in Janesville: 'This guy ain't gonna make it,'" he said.
Then a real estate agent told him about a location next to Craig High.
That's when he came up with an ambitious idea: educate the taste buds of an entire generation, who would become customers for life.
It worked, but only after Halabi worked long hours for years to save on payroll and keep his costs down.
Early on, teachers from Marshall Middle School contacted Halabi. They wanted to know if he would employ at-risk students. He continues to do that to this day. He seems to relish the chance to teach the value of work to large numbers of teen-agers.
Halabi is known for giving back in other ways.
Homeless families in the House of Mercy shelter frequently benefit from Halabi's leftovers, for example
"He does that without any fanfare," said House of Mercy Director Ron Del Cello. "He just shows up. And I bring the pans back the next day."
The YWCA is one of many organizations whose fund-raisers have benefited from Halabi's food, said the YW's Allison Hokinson.
"The impression you get from Edmund is that he truly believes this community has given him something, so he has to give something back," Hokinson said.
"He has been known to be so giving that he has run out at the store," she added.