Owner believes ‘Jesus has kept us here,’ has plans for the future
Terry Prowoznik knows the value of good food served in a unique atmosphere and at a good price. But he doesn’t think that is all there is to the success of the Rockford Vitale’s Pizza, not in their 31st year of business. He isn’t afraid to be open with his strong faith in God, and has images of Jesus, religious pamphlets and Bible quotes on the walls of the restaurant, located at 42 E. Bridge Street in downtown Rockford. Christian music plays nonstop throughout the building every day.
“About five years ago we switched to Christian music. That makes us unique,” said Prowoznik. He is also among only a few eateries to have operated for such a long time in the City’s square.
When Prowoznik started out at age 18, the restaurant was located in the former Antique Mall, which has since been torn down and replaced with the Welcome Center near Great Northern Trading Company. He recalls his neighbors at that location. On the very top was Baskets in the Belfry—and that lofty location is the reason the store earned its name. He said the Candle Shop was already in business there and the Downery, a ski shop that sold winter wear. He recalls a gun shop in downtown and plenty of others who have come and gone.
Prowoznik said he was in a position to expand his business when his current building came up for sale. In his former location he had room for only three tables, and business called for more.
“I liked that it was one of the town’s oldest buildings” he said of his large restaurant, which is even bigger in the upper level. He said the building Rockford has long known as Vitale’s was a stagecoach stop in its early years. Built in 1879, it was Squires Inn for years and also once was a boarding house called Bridge Street House. Room rentals were for overnight or longer.
Prowoznik purchased the building in 1980 and renovated it to be suitable for his business. “It was a restaurant when I bought it, but it wasn’t fit for me,” he said. He opened up walls and made room for his pizza ovens.
Now he has possible plans for renovating the upstairs of the building and putting in condominiums, just as Sam’s Joint is doing. He plans to call them River Condominiums and said it would be fitting for the space to be used that way again, considering the building’s past.
Learning to be patient and appreciating every precious moment of interacting with people are among the lessons Prowoznik has learned in his years in business. “Meeting so many people, I cherish that,” he said. “I still love the ones we see every day. Some have passed away.” Customers he considers “faithfuls” regularly visit and it is not uncommon that the children of past customers now come in with their own kids.
The restaurant is also an important memory for many. “A lot of people came in after they were married and now come back for dinner on their anniversary,” Prowoznik said.
Family has been a big part of Vitale’s as well. Prowoznik’s children worked in the restaurant, although he doesn’t believe he wants them to make the business their own careers. Although they can all cook, they are either in college now or on their way. “It’s a lot of hours; a lot of work,” Prowoznik said. He works every day and when asked if he ever takes a day off, he said, “Not a whole day. Very rarely I take a Sunday off.”
Still, he is dedicated tot he profession and laments that there are so few family-run restaurants around. “You can drive down 28th streets and maybe see five family-owned restaurants. All the rest are chains and franchises.”
Vitale’s in Rockford is not a franchise or affiliated with the other Vitale’s in the area, although they do all sell the same type of food. Prowoznik bought his restaurant outright when he started the business. In recent years he has added specialty dinners to the menu, including chicken, fish and old-style Italian dinners. He still delivers, too, for the cost of $1.
Setting Vitale’s apart from other restaurants is the Christian décor and the atmosphere. “People have come in and told me, “I needed to hear this, I was having a rough day and I just needed to listen to the music,’” Prowoznik said. “There have been lots of comments and notes like that over the years. You never know when you are going to touch their lives. You know you are touching their stomachs, sometimes you are touching their souls.”