When he started as a kitchen worker at Stefani’s on Fullerton Avenue, Claudio Ulivieri gave it one week to see how things would work out. After all, he’d just arrived from Italy, spoke little English and placed his bets on a restaurant that had been open only two weeks.
In fact, Claudio postponed any pay until the Stefani family — Phil and his uncle Lino — graded his efforts. Little did anyone know that in clearing that first hurdle, he began a 35-year career where he moved from the back of the kitchen to the top of a Chicago dining institution.
“I was blessed,” says the vice president of the Stefani Restaurant Group and Casa Italia’s 2016 Man of the Year. “When I came to the U.S. for the first time, if someone had said, ‘In 35 years, you will hold this position,’ I’d have answered, ‘There’s no way — what are you talking about?’”
But he paved that way through a tireless work ethic and a passion for extending warmth and hospitality and, above all, treating people with respect. “Passion for the restaurant business is a gift — you need to have the heart and desire to want to make people happy,” says Claudio, who hails from Altopascio (Lucca) in Italy’s Tuscany region. “If someone walks in and they’re upset about something, the goal is that by the time they leave, they’re smiling and you’re their new best friend.”
Claudio’s first big opportunity came at an early Stefani expansion, Stefani’s-Northbrook, where he jumped from utility player to chef. It was a sign of things to come: Claudio excelled to the point of cooking for President Clinton, both in Chicago and at the White House.
Yet some of the most important people in Claudio’s life are his family, of course, and his employees, whom he considers a second family. “Busboys, waiters, hosts, cooks, bartenders — so many people have to click, and it’s a team effort,” he says. The A-team also includes his wife Michelle, whom he met in Italy just before coming to America, and his sons Nicholas and Matthew, along with Nicholas’ wife, Amy.
“It’s the team around me that makes me what I am: the people I work for, the people I work with, my family — and particularly my wife. She understands the business and the sacrifice it requires. I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business for 35 years if she didn’t support me with love, patience and understanding.”
Here’s how love, patience and passion a la Ulivieri pay off: The Stefani Restaurant Group today holds more than a dozen liquor licenses and its locations run the gamut from Riva Crab House and Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush (Chicago) to Tuscany locations in Wheeling, Oak Brook and on Taylor Street.
While some might keep such blessings and success to themselves, Claudio is driven to give back. Through the Stefani Children’s Foundation, he oversees a golf tournament fundraiser in June that takes some three months to plan and attracts close to 300 golfers. This year will mark the 29th annual tournament and you can count on Claudio putting in plenty of time behind the scenes. He is also a perennial supporter of fundraising efforts for Italian language programs in our schools.
No wonder Claudio sounds just as hungry as that 25-year-old Italian kid trying to prove himself. “To me, vice president is just a title,” he insists. “I do whatever it takes. Whatever needs to be done, I’m there.”