NILES - The crowd at Alberini's on Saturday was reminiscent of a New Year's Eve rush, only with much more emotion as the restaurant welcomed its patrons for the last time.
But restaurant owners hinted that it might not be the last time Valley residents get to savor the taste of Alberini's sauces.
"We have all cried for the last three nights. We have cried with numerous customers," said owner Richard ''Chook'' Alberini Jr.
Tribune Chronicle photos / R. Michael Semple
Richard “Chook” Alberini Jr. stands outside his restaurant on the last day of operation after serving Valley residents for more than 50 years.
Alberini has been operating the family business that was started by his father, Richard Sr., in 1957. Alberini's started as a small pizza place on U.S. Route 422 at the former intersection of Mines Road. It opened at its current location at 1201 Youngstown Warren Road on Dec. 9, 1961, and it is the last of the original family-owned restaurants along Route 422 in Warren and Niles from when the dining / nightlife destination was known as ''The Strip.''
Alberini said in addition to long hours that take much of his time away from his family, the building, to which several additions have been made since his father built it, no longer suits the restaurant's purpose.
"It takes a lot of employees to operate a place this big," he said, adding that there is 20,000 square feet upstairs alone. "This building is just way too big for what we do. I'm going to give the big place a rest," he said.
Alberini's employs 40 people, and they were notified last week about the closing, Alberini said.
But this may not be the last of the family's legacy. Alberini said he is tentatively planning to open a new, smaller location in the future.
"Restaurants this size are obsolete. It's time to downsize to something a little more manageable," he said.
Alberini also plans on selling his famous sauces and pizzas on a larger retail scale.
His wife, Brigitte, was busy seating the steady stream of customers lucky enough to have grabbed reservations.
"We have been booked since it went out on the news, every single day. The phones have been ringing off the hook," she said. She was forced to turn many walk-in customers away because there simply wasn't anywhere to put them.
Lee and Arlene McCurry of Champion were among several parties hoping to catch a table from a canceled reservation. They expressed sadness at hearing about the restaurant closing.
"We've celebrated many anniversaries here," he said. "It's sad, it's really sad. There's definitely nostalgia, there's no doubt about it."
Also enduring the long wait was Noeleen Miller of Niles, who was determined to savor one last meal with her mother, Joan Gallagher, 86.
"My mom is 86. Every Friday night, we would come here, then go shopping at Eastwood Mall and be back home in time to watch "Dallas" and "Magnum, P.I." There are lots of good memories," Miller said.
The restaurant also welcomed former employees on its last night.
Minnie Wolfe of Niles was one of the first waitresses to work at Alberini's when it opened up in the late 50s. She said her most memorable recollection involved a night when she treated her children and some of their friends to dinner after a school dance.
The party of eight, who were supposed to order sandwiches, all ended up with lobster.
"When I got the bill, I was in shock! I had a laugh," she said.
For Alberini, his most memorable experience was the night they passed an inspection for the Distinguished Restaurant of North America in the early 90s.
"Me and my father hugged. We were so happy," he said.
Alberini, who frequently sang and played guitar in the restaurant's lounge with his band, Chookie Unplugged, said he couldn't get his bandmates together on short notice for a final show there, but plans on making some local appearances in the near future.
The closing will not affect D'Vino, a separate Italian restaurant that opened in December in the former banquet room on the lower level of the complex.