Chef’s Corner: Joe Aurelio and the Story Behind Aurelio’s Pizza

Joe Aurelio has worked hard to keep the family name synonymous with good pizza, good service and community spirit.

The smells and flavors of pizza evoke nostalgic memories and feelings for most people. Maybe it takes you back to the third grade, smelling the fresh pies coming out of the oven while awaiting your freebie for reading five books in a month, or noshing on a cheese pie as your favorite animatronic character flails on the electric guitar. One pizzeria that takes “pizza memories” to the next level is the Aurelio’s Pizza location in Homewood, Illinois. Boasting 16,000 square feet of pizza producing power, 650 seats and more than 16 ovens, this Aurelio’s store claims to be the largest pizzeria in the world. With its long halls adorned with customers’ baby pictures, unique architecture and giant floor plan packed with nostalgia in every corner—plus more than 60 years of history—Aurelio’s screams “hometown pizzeria.” Joe Aurelio, the son of Aurelio’s founder and heir to the throne, has worked hard to keep the family name synonymous with good pizza, good service and community spirit, all while growing the family brand to 40 locations in six states. I recently sat down with Aurelio to hear his secrets for turning a small hometown operation into a nationally known brand. 

Hernandez: How did Aurelio’s get started?

Aurelio: My father, Joe, started this place in 1959 with four tables and an oven at the original location here in Homewood. Pizza wasn’t very popular yet. He focused on Italian beef sandwiches, but he always had a desire to make and sell pizza. So it was one customer and one pizza at a time. Eventually, people started talking about the pies, and business started to grow. If you ordered a beef sandwich, my dad would bring out a pizza and ask you to try it. That’s how he grew the pizza side, and by 1961, the flip happened, and he was mainly focused on pizza while still serving the best Italian beef sandwiches in the neighborhood. Then, in 1974, he was the first pizzeria owner in Chicago to start franchising, and by 1977 he had to move to a larger location just around the block, which is our current flagship establishment here in Homewood. 

Hernandez: So selling pizza was always your father’s real goal for Aurelio’s?

Aurelio: He wanted to be the pizza restaurant, to produce the best pizza he could with the highest quality ingredients. The only problem was the people were not used to pizza yet. There was a lot of effort and customer training that went into that transition from beef sandwiches to pizza.

“About 40 years ago, we started putting up pictures of diners’ babies. We even started giving out baby onesies in trade for photos. Over the last 40 years, we’ve amassed over 5,000 baby pictures and several generations of happy pizza diners.” – Joe Aurelio

Hernandez: What is your definition of Chicago-style pizza?

Aurelio: Back in 1943, downtown Chicago-style was a deep-dish pizza. My dad, however, was always drawn towards the thinner-style pizza. People don’t realize there are really three kinds of Chicago-style pizza: thin-crust, deep-dish and stuffed. We also have a stuffed pie, which has a crust on top in more of the “pie” style. But the go-to Aurelio’s pizza is a thin-crust Chicago style.  

Hernandez: I’ve heard of a piece of equipment at Aurelio’s called “The Monster.” Would you care to explain?

Aurelio: My dad was an innovator, but sometimes the technology wasn’t available yet. He teamed up with a local engineer who asked, “Joe, what could I make to help speed up your pizza process?” My dad said, “If you can find a way to put this meat on the pizza without doing it by hand”—because it was fresh, homemade Italian sausage—”it will speed up the process.” He meant [a tool that would] portion it and cut it, have it drop on the pie, then you’re done. He was also the first here to use cooling racks for the pies. He asked someone to craft some screens for the pizzas to keep the dough crispier, and we’ve used them ever since.

Hernandez: Out of culinary curiosity, what is your favorite ingredient or flavor to cook with?

Aurelio: Sausage. I like adding a little hot giardiniera. It gives it a nice kick. I also enjoy roasted red peppers.

Hernandez: Are there any ingredients you really want to test in the kitchen? 

Aurelio: Plant-based proteins. We’re working on that, and we’ll see what happens. We’re also looking at a cauliflower crust. We already have gluten-intolerant pies. This would just help round us out for all customers. You have to pay attention to what the trends are, but at the same time you have to be true to your brand. 

Hernandez: I just have to ask: What’s your personal favorite style and flavor of Chicago pizza?

Aurelio: Well, I love the thinner crust. I just want my crust to be able to hold up my ingredients. That’s enough for me. And I’m very simple: I would do sausage and cheese. You got your cheese, your sauce, your dough and sausage. It’s simple and perfect. 

Hernandez: There are a lot of long hallways in your Homewood store, and most are covered with baby pictures. How did that come about?

Aurelio: We’ve always been about family, and about 40 years ago we started putting up pictures of diners’ babies. We even started giving out baby onesies in trade for photos. Over the last 40 years, we’ve amassed over 5,000 baby pictures and several generations of happy pizza diners. The oldest person in a picture is now 48, and he’s bringing his family here to eat, like when he was a child. It gives the customer a feeling of family and ownership, like this is their place too. 

Hernandez: You’ve grown to 40 stores in six states. But, looking at the map, they do not fan out concentrically from Chicago. You have locations in places from Las Vegas to Minnesota all the way down to Florida. How did this happen, and how do you maintain consistency?

Aurelio: It really is a testament to the brand. Every one of our franchisees were past customers that moved outside Chicago and missed Aurelio’s but couldn’t get it. To keep consistency, we opened a commissary. We recently outgrew our first one and had to relocate. The new commissary is 10,000 square feet, and the sausage, cheese, salami and pepperoni for all Aurelio’s go through that location. We deliver to all our local stores and have a distribution partner that gets it to all the out-of-state stores. We also have cold-food-storage locations [near] our units in Florida, Georgia, Minnesota and Las Vegas. They hold the product there, and then the franchisee will order locally. Now everyone has the same dough, the same cheese, the same sauce. Everything is consistent. 

Hernandez: What is the difference in marketing between the present day and when your dad opened in 1959? What did he do to get his name out there?

Aurelio: Back in the old days, it was all about supporting the local baseball teams, the churches, the theater. But it’s a whole new world now. In addition to supporting local sports and causes, now we have an app for ordering with a rewards system. We do Facebook ads, Facebook posting, texting. We also do some radio, TV and billboards. We still try to touch all types of media. Word-of-mouth from all of our community efforts is very effective, but we found in the digital era, you get the most out of your money from digital ads and texting. It’s a high-tech world, and it keeps changing every day.   

Brian Hernandez is PMQ’s test chef.

The Super Six® — Aurelio’s Pizza, Homewood, IL

Ingredients:

  • 14-oz. dough ball, stretched to 15”
  • 6 oz. sauce
  • 14 oz. fresh, pinched Italian sausage
  • 10 oz. shredded mozzarella (first layer, 6 oz.; second layer, 4 oz.)
  • 6.5 oz. thinly sliced ham (2” x 2” slices)
  • 34-36 slices pepperoni
  • 2.5 oz. green peppers
  • 2.5 oz. mushrooms

Directions:

  • Slap, stretch or press your dough out to a very thin 15” crust. Spread sauce, leaving about a ¼” crust line.
  • Add fresh sausage—pinch small, marble-sized pieces so they cook fully. Next, add the first layer of cheese (3.5 oz.). Then add slices of ham and top with pepperoni, green peppers and mushrooms. Finally, add remaining cheese (6.5 oz) and top with any seasonings you wish. 
  • Cook for about 10 to 12 minutes at 525°F or until the crust is golden-brown and crispy underneath and the ingredients have baked fully. Remove from the oven and cut into squares.

Recipe Video:
Learn how to make The Super Six pizza at PMQ.com/super6.