John, Tony and George Venturella know it is going to be tough.
You don’t just turn off the lights, lock the door and walk away from a restaurant like the Casa Lu Al. Not when it has been in your family for 61 years, and in John and Tony’s case, started by their father George and his brother Dominic.
But they also know the time is right for a change in life, and on Saturday, the longtime family restaurant will serve up its last plate of pasta.
“It’s a matter of retiring for Tony and me,” said John. “For George, it’s a time to try something different.”
Since making the announcement of its closing two weeks ago, the atmosphere at Casa Lu Al has been that of a final rock ‘n’ roll tour.
Monday was typical of what they’ve been experiencing. Shortly before 3 p.m., the restaurant’s parking lot was nearly filled as anxious people waited for it to open. For the rest of the day, finding a parking spot would require a chunk of luck.
Inside, John, Tony and George were being asked to pose for photographs and to sign menus, which customers were taking home with them as souvenirs.
“I knew we would be busy, but I didn’t quite expect this,” said Tony.
He shouldn’t have been surprised.
The Casa is a place where moments shared with customers have been special and memories priceless.
“You know you’ve been doing something right when several times in the newspaper’s obituaries, it would say that having dinner at Casa was one of the person’s favorite things to do,” John pointed out. “We’ve been part of baptisms, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, rehearsal dinners … all kinds of family celebrations.”
As for special moments:
“George seated a couple who told him they came because their first blind date was at the Casa, and George, just by chance, had seated them at the same table they had 21 years ago,” John said. “Another couple has come in here to celebrate every anniversary — and they’ve been married over 40 years.”
Then there are the memories of the third-shift crowds and high school sports fans.
Tony recalled, “We used to be open to 2:30 in the morning. Dana and Ford all had three shifts and our kitchen served sandwiches until 2 a.m. and the bar stayed open until closing. We didn’t have a rowdy crowd … just a bunch of family guys who were unwinding after work.”
During the high school sports season, the restaurant would have a surge of business before and after games.
“In between, we would restock the cooler,” said Tony. “Referees often stopped after a game and mixed with the fans. It was a fun time.”
The Casa has seen change over the years. When the two Venturella brothers purchased it in 1960, it was called the Blinking Owl and was more of a bar. There was a limited food menu and it was open seven days. John joined the business in 1974 and more of an emphasis was put on food. Tony came aboard in 1982 and “young George” started as an 8-year-old, busing tables, and has managed the bar room for the last 25 years.
Long ago, the family announced it would be closed on Sundays, something that holds true today.
“Dad said if you couldn’t make it working six days a week, it wasn’t going to help you working a seventh,” John said. “I think over the years people respected and appreciated we weren’t open on Sundays.”
What’s next for the restaurant and its 57 employees is anyone’s guess.
“We’ve got a great crew. I’ll match our kitchen and service against anyone,” Tony said.
John said one person told him she could land another job right now, but she was going to stay with Casa until the end. “We’ve always tried to be fair with people, even offering a profit-sharing plan. We’ve had a lot of people work here more than 20 years,” he said.
It’s possible someone could buy the restaurant. Many thought that would be George, and hence a third generation taking over the family business. That idea changed when Tony was hospitalized for a month with COVID. All three — John, Tony and George — for different reasons realized it was time to move on.
“When you get into this business, you know it is nights and weekends, missed family weddings and missed sporting events in which your kids are playing. Your work schedule is someone else’s recreational schedule. That’s it in a nutshell,” said Tony.
He looks forward to more family time with wife Colleen, as does John with wife Diana and George with wife Annette.
George said he’ll never forget working for his dad and uncle Tony.
“I wouldn’t be the man I am today without those two,” he said. “They showed me the way to work, and for that, I’m very thankful and will always cherish.”
All three know the days leading up to Saturday will be emotional.
“No doubt we’ll miss all the great folks who have walked through these doors,” John said. “As Bob Hope used to sing many years ago, ‘Thanks for the Memories.’”
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.