When Lenny Innocenzi told his father in 1977 that he was leaving the family beer distribution business to open up a hot dog stand, his father was so angry that he called him “a buffo,” which means comic, clown or joker in Italian.
“I thought it sounded a lot better than calling it Lenny’s Place, so I said let’s call it Buffo’s,” said Innocenzi.
Fast forward to April 18, 2017 when Buffo’s received a Mayoral Proclamation expressing the City of Highwood’s appreciation for Buffo’s 40th Anniversary. Innocenzi said he ran special events in Highwood for many years.
“When the city needed another snow plower, I would help them plow the streets at 2 a.m.,” he said. He also ran Highwood Days for 20 years.
“I never thought (the restaurant) would last 40 years,” said Innocenzi. “When I got to 30, I said to my wife, I’d really like to last until 40 years. We were dating when I started the restaurant and we’ve been married for 36 years.”
In addition to the Mayoral Proclamation, Buffo’s had a two-week celebration for the 40th anniversary. Innocenzi said “The Best of Chicago “on WGN featured Buffo’s double-decker pizza. In 1981, Buffo’s started serving pizzas to bring in more families.
“Buffo’s was half the size of the restaurant now,” said Innocenzi.
“Then a fire began in an upstairs apartment and it burned down in 1979. Fortunately, no one was hurt and in 1981 we put the addition on,” he said. The same year Innocenzi’s partner, who he still considers one of his closest friends, decided to leave the business.
Innocenzi takes pride in the fact that Buffo’s was involved in many “firsts” for Highwood.
“There were no fast food places in Highwood 40 years ago, so when I said I was going to open a hot dog and beef stand everyone laughed,” said Innocenzi. “The late Marvin Fiche from Night ‘N Gale helped me out along with Billy Koretz from Shrimp Walk, and Bill Pigati, Del Rio. They taught me how to do everything from boiling water.”
Buffo’s was the first hot dog stand to receive a liquor license in 1978 by the State of Illinois, and in 1979, it became the first street café that served liquor on public property. “Must places that had seating in front of the business owned the property, but we didn’t,” said Innocenzi. “It’s all city property, so the city and I worked out an ordinance.”
He added, “I always got along with the city and all of the restaurants worked together, because we all had the same customers and worked to grow Highwood.”
Innocenzi recalled one of the most memorable parties at Buffo’s:
“Years ago, a 12-year-old boy pulled up on his bicycle and said he wanted his Bar Mitzvah to be different from all of the other kids,” said Innocenzi. He wanted to have it at his favorite restaurant, so he and Lenny planned his Bar Mitzvah before his parents even knew about it. After the parents called, Innocenzi explained that he and their son had it all worked out.
“Then his family helped me decorate and we closed down the whole place on a Saturday night for the Bar Mitzvah,” Innocenzi added. He still keeps in touch with the family.
Innocenzi said he’s grateful for Buffo’s longtime employees, who include Efrain Ocampo, 31 years, Henry James, 30 years, Aaron Vicario, 21 years, Facundo Mancillo, 17 years, Susan Krakora, 14 years, and Nicole Evenson, 10 years.
Innocenzi’s son Nicholas Innocenzi started working at Buffo’s about eight or nine months ago.
“He was a financial guy and he was getting tired of that, so he said he wanted to come help me run the restaurant and tell me what I’ve been doing wrong for 39 years,” said Lenny Innocenzi.
His son suggested offering pizza delivery service, which is now available.
“It’s good to have family here, and all of the employees and customers like him,” said Lenny Innocenzi. “My three kids all grew up here and we had fun.”
Lenny Innocenzi spent his childhood in the Ravinia neighborhood and now lives in Lake Forest with his wife.
Everyone in his family loves pizza, but his daughter is allergic to cheese, so she inspired Buffo’s cheeseless pizza. In addition to cheeseless, and sauceless, pizza, Buffo’s offers gluten-free mostaccoili with meat, marinara or butter sauce.
Lenny Innocenzi said the popular, homemade tortellaci with meat sauce was originally prepared by two local grandmothers, and now some other women have taken over making the old Highwood recipe.
He has no plans of retiring in the near future.
“If you came to me and said you have to run the restaurant from behind the counter and you cannot go out and talk to customers I would’ve sold the place a long time ago,” he said. “I love all of the kids and customers that come here and I’ve become really good friends with a lot of my customers. I’m still having a good time.”
Buffo’s is located at 431 Sheridan Road in Highwood. For more information call 847/432-0301