Illinois Restaurant Association Recognizes State’s Living Legends


On Thursday, February 27, the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) presented six Living Legend Awards to acknowledge exceptional members whose lifework has enriched the state’s robust restaurant community during the organization’s Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

The following individuals or organizations were selected based on each nominee’s indelible contributions to Illinois’ cuisine and culture and impact on the standards of service that will help lead the hospitality industry into the next 100 years. The award winners include:

Rich Melman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises / Outstanding Restaurateur Award: Honors the restaurant owner or manager who is committed to the time-honored tradition of showing exceptional originality, quality and service to customers and looked up to by his or her fellow operators, employees and community.

In 1971, along with Jerry Orzoff, Richard Melman opened R.J. Grunts in Chicago. A fun restaurant serving food with a sense of humor, Grunts became a forerunner of the dining entertainment trend. Today, Lettuce Entertain You operates more than 100 restaurants nationwide and is committed to the approximately 6,000 people employed by the group.

Rick Bayless /Outstanding Chef Award: Recognizes a chef in Illinois whose career has set national industry standards and who has served as an inspiration to other food professionals.

Rick Bayless founded Frontera Grill in Chicago in 1987 and has since expanded his area restaurants to include Topolobampo, Xoco, Tortas Frontera, and Fontera Fresco.  Bayless, a culinary celebrity and bestselling author recognized for his many philanthropic endeavors and award winning restaurants nation wide, is undoubtedly one of the best chefs of our time.

Turano Baking Company/Outstanding Vendor Award: Recognizes an individual or company with a longstanding reputation for providing superior service and quality products in the industry.

Mariano Turano founded his first bakery in 1962. To meet the demand of his quality breads, Mariano implemented a delivery route himself. His passion and persistence helped build Turano’s reputation of reliability that lives on today. Still family-owned, Turano delivers fresh products daily throughout the nation.

Sysco Chicago/Sara Rowe ProStart® Company Award: Honors a company that has demonstrated a continued dedication of going above and beyond the call of duty to support the IRAEF’s ProStart® Program and its students. 

Sysco, a global leader in selling, marketing and distributing product, supplies, and equipment to the foodservice and hospitality industries, operates 193 facilities serving approximately 425,000 customers. Sysco has been a generous supporter of the Illinois Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ProStart Invitational for over a decade.

Kathryn Thanas, Lou Mitchell’s /Humanitarian Award: Acknowledges an individual or organization working in the Illinois restaurant industry who has given selflessly and worked tirelessly to better the lives of others and society at large.

Lou Mitchell’s was established in 1923 and is owned today by Lou’s niece, Kathryn Thanas. The Thanas family continues the hospitality traditions of this culinary landmark through partnerships with the Good Shepherd House, the IRAEF ProStart Program, the Haymarket Homeless Shelter run by St. Pat’s Church, and through community work programs.

Frank Sgro, Italian Village/Guardian of Tradition Award: Spotlights a restaurant professional whose hospitality has helped keep alive a standard of service and character of community.      

Frank Sgro began working at Italian Village in 1959.  Today, now in his 60’s, Sgro serves as the restaurant’s dedicated maître d’ that has helmed the front of house at Italian Village for more than 50 years. He is as much of an Italian institution and pillar of hospitality as the restaurant is itself.

Founded in 1914, the IRA continues to advocate for foodservice industry, the largest private sector employer in the state. By providing restaurant operators and suppliers with lobbying efforts, valuable business services, networking events, marketing support, educational opportunities and more vital tools to succeed, the IRA serves the needs of this important industry and supports fundraising for the future of food service.

The IRA also celebrates Illinois’ rich culinary diversity, world-class chefs and restaurants annually by organizing events including Bon Appétit presents Chicago Gourmet, Taste of Chicago, From the Chef’s Table, and others.

Via IRA/Isabelli Press Release