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Gonnella Bakery turns 125

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[Gonnella Bakery, circa 1905, on Sangamon. Owner Alessandro Gonnella is on the far left, seated in a delivery carriage. | photo courtesy Gonnella]

Chicago's Gonnella Bakery turns 125 this year.

To celebrate, it's collecting and posting stories from customers on its website, gonnella.com. (There may or may not be some free bread and bread products at stake for those who send in stories.)

Tom Marcucci, Gonnella's vice president of sales and marketing, whose grandfather was founder Alessandro Gonnella's brother-in-law, says it is the oldest bakery in Chicago, and likely in Illinois.

Think about that -- 125 consecutive years in business. The bakery is older than the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack, Lenox china and Salisbury steak.

The story goes much like you'd expect:

Gonnella, an immigrant from Tuscany, found a job at a bakery on DeKoven Street. The owner was from the Piedmont region in northern Italy, where the bread is "light and airy," says Marcucci.

In 1886, Gonnella bought the storefront bakery from his boss; he continued baking the bread the way his boss had showed him. In 1896, he moved the bakery to Sangamon Street, near Grand Avenue, and kept baking. Somewhere in between, he went back to Italy to get married, and little by little, his extended family moved to Chicago to help at the bakery. In 1915, the bakery moved once more, to Damen and Erie. That's where it is now, and where fresh bread continues to roll off the lines.

Bread is bread. But Gonnella still has had to change and adapt.

Home-delivered bread (by horse-drawn carriage until 1951 or so, Marcucci says) fell by the wayside with the advent of the modern grocery store. The rise of the in-house bakery at supermarkets explains why you can no longer find the long loaves of Gonnella bread in paper bags on store shelves (what you will find are the company's plastic-bagged products, such as sandwich rolls).

And the low-carb fad was a "serious hit," Marcucci says. "The problem with the Atkins diet was, it worked."

But Gonnella survived.

The company now has three baking facilities and two frozen dough plants, one of which is in Pennsylvania. Gonnella's dough is in big demand nationally. Ironically, some of that bread that's baked at supermarkets and sold warm from the oven -- that's Gonnella dough.

Gonnella's latest foray is in contract baking. Say, a major food company is developing a frozen entree, and needs a dinner roll to be part of it -- they go to Gonnella.

Thirty-four of Alessandro Gonnella's relatives work at the company. You can bet they, like Marcucci, eat bread.

"I never, ever tire of bread," he says. "I pass the butter, though. Good bread doesn't need butter."

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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