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Koolini Italian Eatery: Raising the Bar for Casual Italian-Inspired Eateries
Koolini Italian Eatery (Koolini) has set the standard for what casual Italian dining should be over 15 years. Never one to compromise quality for price, Koolini prides itself on being able to satisfy taste buds at all price points. The Windsor, Ontario, based eatery includes a dining establishment, as well as a delivery and catering service.
“We are a casual dining establishment serving Italian and Mediterranean cuisine with North American influences,” explains Leo Deluca, owner, founder and president of Koolini. “As time went on we gradually got into the catering business, and just skyrocketed from there. Today, if you need an event catered that is going to be big or difficult, we’re the company you call whether it’s in the city or in the greater Toronto area,” Deluca continues.
The primary goal of Koolini, according to Deluca, has always been to make the customer happy and most of all, comfortable. “The name Koolini comes from the Italian word for a baby’s bottom,” laughs Deluca. “The reason I chose it was really to separate our food from the stuffy and high-end Italian restaurants in the city and take it down a notch while keeping the food at the same level. We’re in Windsor. People here want to go out on a Tuesday night in jeans and we just wanted to be more casual and more comfortable. On any Friday night we will have a judge sitting next to family because it’s the kind of restaurant where you don’t have to be anyone special to come in and eat.”
By understanding that much of being successful is knowing where to give recognition, Deluca credits his skilled staff. “Our Master Chef, Chef Domenico “Mimmo” Casa Grande-Bei, has worked in Milan for Giorgio Armani and was flown to Russia to cook for Putin at the Italian Embassy. He cooked for Wayne Gretszky the whole week he was in Toronto a few years ago so he’s good. People ask me all the time what a chef like Mimmo is doing in Windsor and well, it’s because he married my daughter,” laughs Deluca. “He’s really the brains behind the whole operation and I won’t take credit for that. He is the creator and I just own the buildings. He’s proficient in absolutely everything and he is the driving force behind our entire operation. Because of him, we make everything from scratch, absolutely everything, down to the salad dressings.”
Over the years it has been Chef Mimmo’s persistence on from-scratch food that pushed the company to expand its operations and establish a strong foothold in the catering market. “We have four different kitchens: one for pizzas, a dining room kitchen, a catering kitchen and a delivery kitchen. We actually purchased two homes behind the restaurant to expand our parking because we needed the space. We turned one of them into the pastry shop and the other one we use to store all the catering equipment,” says Deluca. “Basically, Chef Mimmo does not like to purchase. He likes to make. And he has always been that way. When we cater a wedding, the food does not come prepared to site. We bring in all the ranges and prepare absolutely everything in a 20-foot by 40-foot tent mobile kitchen. The only things we don’t bring are the tents, tables and chairs.”
Excelling within Limits
The company has been in the business so long, and has established such a strong network of supplier relationships, that even though Koolini does not bring the tables and chairs itself, Deluca can essentially plan an entire meal from soup to nuts. “The reason we don’t rent tables, chairs and tents is really because we don’t have the space for them. In all the years we have catered weddings, I have only ever worked with one wedding planner, because I’ve been doing this so long that I have a decorator I call up and I know the party suppliers in town who can bring in the tables and tents. Basically, after the reception, I can take care of everything myself,” says Deluca. “Loyalty is very big for us. We work with local suppliers for everything we can. I have been working with the same cheese supplier for 48 years, since even before I started Koolini.
The only reason we would go out of area would be for specialty items that I just can’t get here. But really, we have one specialty food supplier in Toronto and aside from that company, everything else is local. We always work with the same companies. You have to get to know your supplier and trust them so you don’t have to check in on them every day.”
Customers flock to Koolini, aside from the food, for catering when in need of someone to trust. Having worked in the industry since the age of 11, Deluca understands the tact it takes to keep those clients coming back. “I started folding pizza boxes when I was 11 and worked my way through that company until it sold. I spent 35 years there,” recalls Deluca. “So when we have big corporate clients call and say that they need lunch and dinner catered for the whole week for Japanese investors, I understand that this phone call is not going to be a two hour menu plan. They just want me to do it. That’s why they call me in the first place and it’s why they keep calling us back for more catering. It’s because they are confident and comfortable that we will supply them with the food they didn’t even know they wanted.”
Though this kind of approach requires much more attention, Deluca accepts the limitations that come with it. “In order to be successful in this industry, you have to be very active in the community. You have to give back your fair share and we’re very active in sponsoring local youth sports and community charities,” says Deluca. “On top of that, I have created a company that is based on customer service. I’m on the phone personally going through a bride’s dinner menu and it’s exactly the kind of business I wanted, even though it keeps me on the phone seven days a week from the moment I get in to the moment I leave for home. It’s also why I know that I can never branch out. Our customer expects this level of customer service, which isn’t a bad problem to have.” With years of expertise and pose under his belt, Deluca is sure to outshine many other Italian cuisines in the area with Koolini Italian Eatery’s recipe for perfection.