35 years after fire, Buffo’s a family favorite in Highwood

Lenny Innocenzi will never forget the moment he found out that his then two year-old Highwood restaurant, Buffo’s, had gone up in flames.

“It was devastating,” he said. “All of our hard work was destroyed in minutes.”

This fall marks the 35th anniversary of that horrible electrical fire, which resulted in a complete gut and remodel of Buffo’s. But the family restaurant not only bounced back, it has become a well-known and well-loved Highwood spot for pizza, pasta and family fun.

“This is truly a family place, and running it feels like I’m seeing my friends everyday,” said Innocenzi, who is originally from Highland Park, and now lives in Lake Forest with his wife, Joy.

Innocenzi comes from a long line of entrepreneurs that began with his grandparents, Pasqual and Josephine Innocenzi. The two owned a grocery store in the 1920’s in the exact same location that now houses Buffo’s.

His father, Ollie Innocenzi, also had his own business, a beer distributing company. Innocenzi worked for his father in high school, delivering beer to restaurants, bars and liquor stores.

In 1977, Innocenzi and his best friend, Al Ferrara of Highland Park, saw a need for a family restaurant in Highwood. Without any prior restaurant experience, the two took a chance and opened Buffo’s.

“At the time, all the restaurants in Highwood, and really all over the North Shore were for adults,” said Innocenzi, who bought out Ferrara — still his best friend ­— a couple years later. “In Italian, ‘buffo means ‘joker, clown or idiot,’ and the big joke in my family was that I was an idiot for leaving my family business. That’s how Buffo’s got its name.”

But Innocenzi was smart enough to learn the restaurant business from the best: the owners of successful restaurants on his block, including Night N’ Gale, Shrimp Walk and Del Rio.

“They taught me how to work hard, to be around a lot for the customers, and to be an owner operator, meaning you always have to be here for your place to be a success,” he said.

“Lenny has been very successful because he does his job well,” said Bill Pigati, who has owned 90 year-old Del Rio for 44 years. “He is a really affable guy, but he also puts out a great product including pizza, burgers and hot dogs.”

Buffo’s, with warm décor that includes exposed brick, wooden tables and historical photos of the family and of Highwood seats 130 inside, with additional space for 80 on its large, outdoor seating area.

While known for its homemade pizzas and pasta, Buffo’s also offers a large menu of appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, burgers, chicken, hot dogs, and entrees that include southern fried chicken, fish & chips and ribs.

“Everything is made fresh,” Innocenzi said. “The dough is homemade, all the veggies are chopped daily, the cheese is freshly grated, and we make our own pasta sauces and noodles.”

“It’s one of the best family places, and I love the outdoor seating,” said Josh Weisbart of Highland Park. “They have great Italian beef sandwiches, great pizza, yummy beer on tap, and video games for the kids to entertain themselves.”

Pat and John Lenzini have been customers of Buffo’s since they moved to the area 12 years ago.

“They have such a great family atmosphere,” said Pat. “We go there every Sunday with our grandchildren, and we’ve had parties for the kids there, too.”

Pat said their favorite menu items include pizza with green peppers, onions and mushrooms and pasta.

“The trick is, you have to make changes and tweak things all the time to continue to give people what they want,” Pigati said. “Lenny does that. He’s a sound business guy.”

Buffo’s 431 Sheridan Road (847) 432-0301 buffos.com

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