Guest Column: Maria’s Italian Café will be missed in the Ethnic Village

Editor’s note: Owners of Maria’s Italian Café, 828 Cunningham St., have announced the longtime Rockford mainstay will close its doors for good Dec. 31.

By Valeri DeCastris

President, the Ethnic Village Neighborhood Organization

The Ethnic Village Neighborhood Organization mourns the closure of one of Rockford’s oldest and most popular eateries. Although we knew the time would come someday for a nearly century-old establishment to finally close, today marks the end of a very important era in Rockford and for its Italian American community. We salute Maria’s for remaining in the “old” Italian neighborhood in historic south Rockford for nearly 100 years and for helping to preserve Rockford’s rich Italian heritage.

Maria’s Italian Café originally was across the street from where it now is at Corbin and Cunningham streets. Begun by husband and wife Tissiano or“Tish” and Maria Casoni (later changed to “Cason”), it was first frequented by the large Italian American community in south Rockford. It began operation in 1913 as a grocery store, and during the Great Depression, Maria Cason would cook for people in back of the grocery store. As a result of the Great Depression, they lost the business and were forced to sell the grocery store.

Tiss and Maria then started Maria’s Italian Café at its current location at 828 Cunningham St., where the Cason family has continually served people its signature Italian dishes for nearly a century. Co-owned and operated by husband and wife Jake (John) and Carmella (Carm) and Jake’s brother, Tony Cason and his wife Peggy, Maria’s Frozen Foods was established to provide frozen pizzas to stateline grocery stores.

Notable visitors to Maria’s include President George H.W. Bush, Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and Illinois legislators, Chicago Cubs ball players Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Randy Huntley and comedians Foster Brooks and Red Skelton, musicians Kelly Smith, Louie Prima, Maynard Ferguson and Cheap Trick band members (to name just a few). The later former alderman and proprietor Jake Cason was best friends with the late former Dean of the Illinois House, Rep. E.J. “Zeke” Giorgi. After Jake’s death, his wife, the late Carm Cason, and sons Joey and Johnny ran it.

Former Gov. Thompson and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen publicly proclaimed Maria’s to be “their favorite Rockford restaurant.” Its convivial and lively, crowded and yet intimate Old-World atmosphere made it a premier destination for not only Rockfordians, but also for visitors to the stateline. It resembles cafés and restaurants in Italy, and people flocked to it not only for the great food, but also for its cozy and warm, welcoming environment.

The Cason family and Maria’s Italilan Café have been benefactors to many area nonprofit organizations and donors to numerous causes. The restaurant was an anchor in the Ethnic Village of south Rockford, and we thank it for its years of service and great food and fun.

From the Nov. 13-19, 2013, issue

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