Feb 11, 2018 04:35PM
By Lindsay Wilson
Despite his retirement from a long, fruitful career in the restaurant business, Chuck Caniglia can still be found doing what he loves best.
“You caught me with my hands full. I’m making homemade Venice Inn pizza,” says Caniglia, washing up and settling in to tell the story of his tenure serving up warm hospitality alongside great food.
The Caniglia family famously lit up the Omaha restaurant scene for decades, with local favorites like Caniglia’s Pizzeria (which introduced pizza to Omaha after World War II), Caniglia’s Italian Steakhouse, Mister C’s Steakhouse, Al Caniglia’s Drawing Room, Palazzo ’Taliano, Luigi’s, Top of the World at Woodmen Tower, and others. A longstanding cornerstone of this culinary empire was Chuck’s father Eli Caniglia’s Venice Inn at 69th and Pacific streets, which opened in 1957.
Caniglia started pitching in at his father’s restaurant at age 13, and his younger brother Jerry later followed in his footsteps. When Eli passed away in 1983, the brothers took up the mantle and ran Venice Inn until it closed in 2014. Caniglia was there until the bittersweet end; he locked the doors for the last time on the restaurant’s final day of business.
“I never worked anywhere else,” Caniglia says. “That was our life, we felt honored to continue Dad’s work, and we enjoyed our customers so much. I miss interacting with them the most. We had very loyal customers and got hundreds of letters before we closed telling us , ‘Congratulations and best wishes, but we don’t want you to close.’ It was very bittersweet. But we’re happy now, even though we do miss it.”
Around Chuck’s 70th birthday, after decades in the demanding, labor-intensive restaurant business, the Caniglia brothers decided it was time to retire and spend more time with family. With all their children already invested in their own careers, there was no one to pass the restaurant on to — and that’s when another family entered the picture.
Brothers Jamie and Nick Saldi expressed interest in the site, and that’s when Chuck and Jerry analyzed things and decided the time was right to close Venice Inn and sell the land. The Saldis own Legends Patio Grill & Bar locations in Omaha’s Cherry Creek and Lincoln’s Haymarket.
“It’s kind of cool that our property has been sold to the Saldis, because they’re two brothers also,” Caniglia says. “So, those two brothers will carry on the legacy of our family property.”
The Saldi brothers are on track to open their third Legends location on the old Venice Inn grounds in March 2018. The development, dubbed Aksarben Pointe, will house two additional, yet-to-be-named tenants.
“We both went to UNO, so we’re familiar with the Aksarben area and had been seeking an opportunity in the area for a long time,” Nick says. “When the Venice Inn spot became available, we jumped on it right away and we’re excited to be there.”
He describes Legends as a “sports-themed restaurant.”
“I try to avoid using the term ‘sports bar’ because it really is family friendly,” Nick says. “Most of our clientele [at the original Legends] is the neighborhood, family crowd, and we have many repeat customers. As a customer, you have a thousand places you could go to get a burger and a cold beer, but what sets us apart is that we try to create the right culture and experience for each customer and employee.”
Caniglia says that same sense of focus on customer experience is what facilitated Venice Inn’s longevity.
“If you have a good restaurant, you serve good food at a reasonable price, you treat your customers well, and you’re always there to greet them, you can’t miss,” Caniglia says. “That’s what my father taught me.”
The Venice Inn was so successful at creating that sense of community and loyalty that people still approach Caniglia with stories of how the restaurant was an important backdrop for their first dates, family celebrations, and other milestone events.
“People love to share their memories of occasions at Venice Inn,” Caniglia says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we had our prenuptial dinner there,’ or ‘We had our anniversary party there,’ and that makes me feel good.”
Soon, the Saldis will welcome neighbors to make new memories at Legends. Although they are building a new restaurant structure, the brothers maintain a special reverence for the past.
“In our Legends concept we have party rooms, and it’s a big theme of what we do as far as hosting receptions, birthdays, and special events for people,” Nick says. “So, I told Chuck I’d like to name one of our party rooms ‘The Venice Inn Room’ and do a memory wall there. He agreed to share some memorabilia that will let us create something to keep that building, that was so iconic in Omaha for so long, alive on one of our walls.”
“I’m very honored that they want to do a Venice Inn memory wall in their place,” Caniglia says. “The Saldis are the nicest people, and they were great to work with. We made the best choice selling our property to them. There’s nobody else I’d have rather sold to than the Saldis.”
The feeling is mutual. Jamie says their families connected while sharing their stories, and they enjoyed getting to know the Caniglia brothers throughout the sale process.
“When we first created a relationship with the Caniglias, we hit it off right away,” Nick says. “We talked very little about real estate and the property, but a lot about restaurants. We’re a very different concept than they had, but it’s remarkable how much their core values and ours align in the sense that they take care of their people and their customers, and we aim to do the same.”
Visit legendsomaha.com for more information about the restaurant concept coming to Aksarben Pointe.
This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.