Edmund Halabi didn’t grow up in Janesville, but those familiar with the proprietor of Italian House recognize him as Bower City through and through.
In addition to literally feeding the needs of city residents and students at both his former and current restaurants adjacent to Craig High School, Halabi has been a longtime supporter of various youth programs, social organizations and nonprofit groups.
Across 32 years, he has won countless awards and been recognized for his community involvement by the governor’s office, educational groups, athletic organizations and many others.
As for his food, Halabi’s fare—particularly his sauce and famous Gondola sub sandwich—is so popular that it also is available at Woodman’s grocery store in Janesville.
A native of West Africa, Halabi attended Cathedral High School in Monrovia, Liberia, for 11 years before coming to America. Though he graduated from Bergan High School in Peoria, Illinois, in 1981, he considers Janesville to be his hometown.
Halabi and his wife, Karen, have three sons: Ashley, Brandon and Jordan. The couple also have a King Charles Cavalier dog named Lola.
To learn more about Halabi and The Italian House, visit the restaurant at 1603 E. Racine St., Janesville, or visit ItalianHouseJanesville.com.
1. One of the interesting aspects of Italian House are the many student signatures that began appearing on the brick walls of your former restaurant, which are now at your new location. How many signatures do you estimate there are, and what are some of the more famous names included? We had a lot of names on the wall but never counted them. We couldn’t put all the names in the new building due to a lack of space. A few include Paul Ryan (former House speaker), Pete Lee (professional comedian) and Tim Elliot (WMTV anchor).
2. How does a native of West Africa wind up in cooking Italian food in Janesville, Wisconsin? I learned basic cooking techniques while going through college to become a medical laboratory technician. I chose the Italian cuisine category because it was cheaper to stock the inventory than meats and seafoods.
3. What is the single most popular item on the Italian House menu? What do you think is the reason behind that? Our most popular item is our garlic bread. Equally popular is our sauce, Italian dressing and pasta.
4. What initially sparked your interested in cooking? My spark for cooking came about to pay the bills, and the hours worked well for me as I went through four years of college. I started to enjoy the multitasking and adrenaline rush.
5. At the grocery store, what item always goes in your cart whether you need it or not? Bananas. I enjoy them every day for health benefits and as a sugar booster. I’m usually up by 4 a.m., so by mid-morning, I fuel myself with bananas.
6. What are the best and worst things about running a food business so close to a high school? The best thing is the customer base, which can speed up the recognition of the brand. The worst thing is the public labels you as a high-school hangout place.
7. Are you handy, or do you pay people to fix/paint/install things? I’m not handy because I lack the time and patience.
8. In your opinion, why is it important for a business to be an active member of the community? When you take from the community, giving back is the heart and soul of your brand.
9. If you could have any feature from any animal, what would it be? The feature I would aspire to have is how they love, protect and make you happy unconditionally.
10. Is Italian food your favorite food to eat, or just to cook? If it is not your favorite, what genre is your favorite, and what is your favorite dish? When one is around a specific cuisine all the time, it makes you yearn for something different to eat. I love cooking Italian foods for others to enjoy. My go-to dishes are Middle Eastern, Asian and anything well seasoned and grilled.
11. If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do? I would invest all of it into stocks that pay a dividend. I will use the dividends to help some in my community and the very poor countries in West Africa with the ability to have drinking water, health care and educate them on how to become self-sustaining in farming and livestock. It’s a shame to see how many don’t even have clean water to drink and bathe with in this day and age.
12. You are surrounded by food all day long. Do you enjoy cooking when you are at home, or would you rather leave that to others? With my crazy hours of early A.M. into the late P.M., it’s really hard to cooke at home. My wife, who is an excellent cook, always has something ready for me.
13. Some people refer to Janesville as “Chainsville,” claiming there aren’t enough local restaurant options here. As an independent restaurant owner, what do you say to that? Being in this industry for 32 years plus, it is very hard to maintain and sustain any independent restaurant. I’m thankful that we do have chain restaurants. They add variety and choices, flavor, opportunities to work, provide taxes, and provide us with food that is affordably priced. Small, independent restaurants don’t have the buying power, location, management and marketing skills, advertisement experience and cash flow. Hence, in between 3 and 10 years, 90% will fail. My three cents is: If you want to open a restaurant, don’t. Take that money and put it into a restaurant stock-filled mutual fund and you will have a better return on your money without the challenges of maintaining and sustaining a brick-and-mortar restaurant where you could risk it all in time.
14. People would be surprised to know that I: Have no hobbies, hate watching sports, have never golfed, never been to a concert. I had a used-car dealership for 10 years. I owned the iconic Geri’s Hamburger building. I serve on the board of Blackhawk Community Credit Union. And I still work 80 to 90 hours per week.
15. In an interview with the Rock County Historical Society, you swore you would never work in another restaurant after doing so to put yourself through college. What happened? I found myself missing the multitasking, adrenaline rush and interacting with the public. I jumped back in!
16. Share your most treasured memory from childhood. Spending time with family—aunts, uncles and cousins—all enjoying the elaborate cultural meals.
17. Do you collect anything? I collect nothing. However, I do love to collect shares in stocks. I’ve been a strong advocate of investing in stocks for many years. As a result, I’ve been able to purchase real estate.
18. You have two hours of spare time. What do you do? I go home and take a walk on the bike trail with my wife and later take a drive in my Stingray before returning to work.
19. Do you believe in karma? I’ve always believed that one should help in whatever is needed and expect nothing back in return.
20. What is the single most popular item on the menu at Italian House, and to what do you attribute that? The Legacy sub! We have sold more than a million in 32 years. It’s the sweet sourdough bread with all of the smoky, salty meats, cheese and lettuce, making it the king of subs.
Editor’s note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.