Hungry for Chicago-style food? Head to Nipomo.
Yellow flags on Tefft Street let passersby know that authentic Vienna beef sausages are nearby. They lead to Stefono’s Sapori D’ Italia—home of the only real-deal Chicago dog in San Luis Obispo County, according to founder Dante Stefono.
“It’s not something you can just go to the store and buy,” he said. “Everybody thinks a hot dog is a hot dog until you taste a Vienna and compare it to a store-bought hot dog, and then they can see the difference.”
The store is decked out with old-school posters starting with the front door.
“Get the beefed-up Chicago original!” one says.
“Giant sausage invades Chicago!” declares another.
A techno remix of The Godfather theme song welcomes customers inside an almost bodega-style store packed with a shelf of Miss Vickie’s kettle chips, a refrigerator full of drinks, and a large serving station equipped with bins of gelato and Italian ices.
Stefono is proud of his connection to Vienna sausages. Born and raised in Chicago, he moved to the Central Coast through his military service at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc. But the restaurant industry has deep roots for Stefono—his family founded and ran the nationwide Portillo’s chain until they sold it to Berkshire Partners in 2014 for nearly $1 billion.
“I was always fond of cooking in the kitchen with my grandma and great-grandma,” Stefono said. “After I retired from the military, I decided to open up a small place in Santa Maria for my daughters as a hobby. I didn’t realize it was going to take off the way it did.”
He’s referring to Stefono’s first store in Santa Maria that opened in 2018. Stefono eventually sold it, and a little more than two years ago, Nipomo received its own shop. In both stores, Stefono made sure that “90 percent” of the ingredients, including the bread, hot dog buns, and whole sections of meat sliced fresh daily, came directly from Chicago. It’s what sets his restaurant apart from others in SLO County, he said.
“There are a few places that try to do knockoffs of the Chicago dog, and it’s not even close,” he said. “I get so upset.”
Chicago dogs at Stefono’s are served in a poppy seed bun bearing mustard, relish, tomatoes, pickled celery, salt, and peppers that all adorn a Vienna sausage. They have curious names—the Al Capone Jumbo Dog, the John Gotti Dog (named after the mob boss of New York City’s Gambino crime family), and the Victoria Vegan (named after Gotti’s daughter) among others.
Then there’s Stefono’s own creation: the tri-tip Italian dip. He devised his twist on the French dip at the old Santa Maria shop.
“I should probably patent it,” he said. “I did that because everyone here is into tri-tip. We slice the beef thinly, and then we use the same jus that we use for the Italian beef with Italian seasoning.”
Stefono explained that “Italian beef” refers to a top round cut that’s roasted with 19 herbs and spices. It originated in Chicago in the 1920s during the Great Depression when people decided to cut corners and put shaved meat on bread. But the Italian-American joint also offers gyros—a nod to the Greek community and its restaurants that Stefono grew up with. His most cherished item on the menu is a childhood classic.
“The Italian beef and sausage combo is my favorite to this day,” he said. “You have an Italian sausage on Italian bread with Italian beef on top, and dip the whole sandwich in the jus. I like it with either sweet or hot peppers on top or grilled onions.”
Desserts at Stefono’s have Italian origins, too. Along with cannoli, the shop rotates flavors of Italian ices and Villa Dolce gelato.
“Our gelato comes from a company out of Italy, and they happen to have a warehouse in New Jersey,” he said. “I have people coming here who have actually lived in Italy and say that the gelato is just as good, if not better.”
Accessibility is the premise of Stefono’s. Moving to the Central Coast from the East Coast left Stefono with a craving for the flavors of home but with few ways to fulfill it. So he decided to make his favorite foods himself and keep prices low for everyone to enjoy.
The most expensive hot dog at Stefono’s is less than $8, and overall, the Meat Lovers Pasta Bowl will set customers back the most by $15.
“My grandfather taught me that having a good product, having fair prices, and good customer service—you’ll always be successful,” Stefono said.
Currently, the restaurant is slowly transitioning leadership. Stefono sold the Nipomo store last December but is sticking around to make sure that the restaurant stays true to its heritage. For him, Santa Maria is now home, and he doesn’t plan to return to Chicago. But he’s found the comforts of that city through his food.
“I always strive to improve. I don’t substitute my ingredients with anything inferior, and [I’m] always looking for better,” Stefono said. “It’s the real deal.”
New Times Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal, from the Sun’s sister paper, is staying warm with two bowls of the tri-tip Italian dip jus. Send hot peppers to [email protected].