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Felicitas Cortez, Staff Writer
In a different era, Frank Sinatra could walk into a restaurant and order his go to – two-fingers whiskey, four ice cubes and a splash of water – never having to request the drink of choice again because the owner or bartender would just know for next time.
It doesn’t have to be a different era, yet alone Frank Sinatra who’s ordering, because a place like that still exists in Mokena.
“I’m good at remembering details,” said Benny Leonardo, co-owner of Mr. Benny’s Steak & Lobster House. “After a first meeting, I can remember someone’s name, what they ordered for dinner, what they drank – for the next time they come in. It’s important to do so, and amounts to 99 percent of our success.”
Benny, his wife Joy Leonardo and their family don’t just offer up some of the best prime-aged steak and seafood; they serve up plenty of old-world hospitality and decades-long love for fine dining.
The Mokena location maintains a nod to dining in style, the old-fashion way. The dining room is formal, without being overbearing, with comfortable tables or cozy, curved banquettes. All steaks, featuring Wagyu beef, are served to order, as well as fresh oysters, clams and other seafood items along with a classic Caesar salad made tableside.
This year, Mr. Benny’s Steak & Lobster House celebrates a combined 48 years as a culinary destination in Mokena at 19200 Everett Lane, and at its Matteson location.
In the age of endless dining options, what’s the recipe to Mr. Benny’s success? Quality food and knowing how to treat the customer, according to Benny.
“When you walk into the restaurant, we make you feel like you’re the only customer that matters,” Benny said. “We want you to feel special.”
This is Benny’s way.
His special touch, which has graced every Leonardo establishment from the Dominick’s Club – a “sandwich and beer joint” opened in 1963 among the steel mills in Chicago Heights, to the Silhouette – the first fine dining restaurant they opened in 1966. Then a year later, the original Mr. Benny’s location at 229th and Western Avenue in Chicago Heights was in place.
“[The original Mr. Benny’s] was in an alley, about 30×60, and the place took off,” Benny said. “We used the same theory that we still have in place today – we may not be the biggest [restaurant], but we’re the best.”
Mr. Benny’s moved to its current Matteson location in 1977. The success of the restaurant and the impending growth of the Mokena and Frankfort communities prompted the Leonardos to open a second restaurant in 2000, bringing their food and commitment to service to Will County.
“And (in Mokena) we’re still located in an alley, off the main drag,” Benny joked. “But we were the first restaurant in this area.”
It’s that home town comfort feeling that the Leonardo’s also consistently strive to maintain.
“We also have signature dishes named after members of the family and some dishes off the menu,” said his daughter Vicki.
And while a new generation of Leonardos – Vicki and her siblings, Nick, Larry and Connie – are gradually taking over the restaurants’ operations, Benny still holds the floor. On any given night, he works his way table to table, greeting all customers – several of whom are long-time regulars – with stories and conversation.
Joy said that many come to Mr. Benny’s to mark a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion, but good food is reason enough to celebrate.
“If you want the best steak restaurant with an Italian flair, dine with us,” Joy said. “Every day should be a special occasion.”