CHAMPAIGN — Fifty years ago today, Bob Monti served his first Papa Del’s pizza from its original location at the corner of Wright and Healey streets in Campustown.
It was homecoming weekend, with Illinois playing No. 1 Ohio State.
“We got our butts kicked,” Monti said.
But it was the start of something good.
“We didn’t do any advertising. We wanted to have a slow opening,” Monti said. But “it was way busier than we could handle.”
Monti, who worked for his father’s pizza place in the Chicago suburbs for 10 years before opening Papa Del’s, said his motivation was simple: “There was no good pizza in Champaign, period, no matter what style.”
When it opened, Monti said his father expected him to last 10 years.
“He was wrong. I’m still here,” he said.
Papa Del’s had been planning to celebrate its anniversary this weekend in its second-floor dining room, but COVID-19 postponed that.
They had planned to invite Monti’s fraternity brothers — who nicknamed him Del Monti and later Papa Del and tested his first recipes — and some business friends, former employees and loyal customers.
That’s been tentatively moved to March.
“Hopefully we’ll have a cure by then,” said Monti, 74. “At my age, I have a few health issues, and I don’t want people coming from all over to give me the COVID.”
He said the pizza recipe has improved over the years but is “basically the same” as it was when he opened 50 years ago.
And it has proved to be popular.
“We kept getting busier every week and had to hire more people and more people,” Monti said.
He soon had to buy an automated dough roller and two new ovens, doubling the oven capacity.
Five years after opening, Papa Del’s moved to 206 E. Green St., and over the years, it has had locations in Rantoul, Indiana and the Village at the Crossing in southwest Champaign.
In 2016, it moved again, this time off campus to the former Coca-Cola Bottling Co. building on South Neil Street.
“On Wright Street, we had 72 seats. On Green Street, we had 178 plus eight or nine barstools,” Monti said. “This place sits 550.”
Monti said Papa Del’s has served some memorable customers over the years, from Frank Sinatra to those aboard Air Force One when President Bill Clinton visited in 1998 (and got stuck in the mud).
The plane ordered “14 pizzas, and almost all had sausage, pepperoni and bacon,” Monti said.
They like to joke that the pilot ran off the runway because his hands were still greasy.
Monti said he still works seven days a week but is starting to slow down.
“It takes a toll on your body,” he said. “I definitely won’t be working on the 60th anniversary. I’ll be in a wheelchair.”