Buona, The Original Italian Beef, is a family business, and that family would like to see it become a household name. With 16 stores in the Chicago area, the Buonavolanto family hopes to educate the rest of the country on exactly what Italian beef is.
Joe Buonavolanto Jr., president and CEO of Buona and son of the founder, says the concept’s best-selling product is roasted top sirloin.
“The fact that we roast the meat is significant because it produces a gravy,” he says. “We use the beef drippings to make the gravy. Then, very thin slices are submerged in that gravy and layered onto Italian bread that’s crusty on the outside, soft on the inside.”
After that, Buonavolanto says, the sandwich is customized by the guest. Some customers prefer it extra juicy, while others like it drier. According to the Buona menu, Italian beef can be ordered Original, in its own gravy plus an added spoonful; Dry, with less gravy; Dipped, with the ends dipped in gravy; or Red, with marinara sauce on it.
The beef is roasted with nothing more than Italian spices, garlic, salt, and pepper. It is traditionally served with hot giardiniera—a spicy mix of pickled vegetables—or roasted sweet bell peppers. Some diners like to top their beef with Mozzarella cheese.
Joe Buonavolanto Sr. opened the first Buona in the western Chicago suburb of Berwyn in 1981.
“The business was started by my mother and father when we were very young,” Buonavolanto Jr. says. “Now we’ve got three generations in the business; myself and my four brothers and about 10 of our 20 children are actively involved, plus a whole team of long-term employees. It’s truly a family business.”
President & CEO: Joe Buonavolanto Jr
HQ: Berwyn, Illinois
YEAR STARTED: 1981
ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed
TOTAL UNITS: 16
FRANCHISE UNITS: 0
Buonavolanto says the company is working toward franchising the brand and plans to sell its first franchises at the end of 2016. There are also plans to open four or five company-owned stores each year for the next five years.
“Over the years we’ve tweaked our concept and developed our prototype store and business model,” he says. “We feel the fast-casual market is very popular right now, as consumers are either trading up from fast food or trading down from more upscale dining.”
He says he hopes to expand into markets like Wisconsin and Indiana first. “While Italian beef may not be well known all over the country, a lot of people from neighboring states like Wisconsin have been in Illinois, and there have been attempts to serve Italian beef up that way. We want to grow in the Midwest first and then out from there.”
Buonavolanto says that in addition to spreading the word about the deliciousness of Italian beef, he also wants health-conscious consumers to know it is a lean protein and that the gravy is made with only the beef’s natural juices.
While Italian beef is the No. 1 seller, Buona stores also serve Chicago-style hot dogs, which are all-beef franks topped with mustard, relish, onion, peppers, pickles, and tomato served in a steamed poppy seed bun. The Buona menu also includes Italian sausage sandwiches and meatball sandwiches.
The Italian beef is roasted in a commissary, cooled overnight, and in the morning sliced, packaged, and sent out to the stores in refrigerated trucks. The stores reheat the beef in the gravy before serving. The meatballs and Italian sausage are also made at the commissary with proprietary family recipes.
Following the classic, Italian-style sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs, pizza and salads are the next biggest categories on the Buona menu. The pizzas are not the thick-crust pies Chicago is famous for, but rather a hand-rolled thin-crust style. In addition to classics like four-cheese and pepperoni, the restaurants also serve an Italian beef and giardiniera–topped pizza.
Seven hand-tossed salads are offered at Buona, including Tuscan Harvest, which has mixed greens, Granny Smith apple, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, and Gorgonzola cheese topped with raspberry dressing. The Old Neighborhood House Salad features mixed greens, Roma tomato, cucumber, pepperoncini, Italian vinaigrette, and house-made croutons.
The Buona menu also offers burgers, panini, and café sandwiches, including an Italian deli-meat sub and the Pollo Pomodoro—marinated roasted chicken breast, Mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, and balsamic glaze on multigrain ciabatta bread. Most locations offer beer and wine in addition to soft drinks and Lavazza Italian drip coffee.
A value meal of an Italian beef sandwich, side, and a drink is priced at $8.75, and the per person ticket average is about $9.50.
The lunch-dinner split at a typical Buona location is about even, as is the split between dine-in and carryout sales. The brand also caters, which accounts for 10–12 percent of the business, Buonavolanto says
Buona stores are around 4,000 square feet, with seating for about 120 guests. All but the original location have a drive thru, and every drive thru has three windows. One window is for paying, one is for picking up quick orders, and the third is for large or customized orders that can take longer.