The History of Papa Del’s Runs Deep (Dish)

It’s one of the most coveted restaurants on campus for University students — both old and new.

Robert Monti, 65, has worked in the restaurant business for longer than he had imagined.

“Pops,” as he is called, is the owner of one of the longest running pizza restaurants at the University — Papa Del’s.

The restaurant has been open for 41 years and is a staple on the University campus. Especially on game day.

“I opened the restaurant during my senior year here at the U of I during the Homecoming football game,” Monti said. “I realized that there weren’t that many good pizza places in Champaign, specifically serving pan pizzas, so I decided to open up my own.”

Monti worked at his dad’s pizza place in Lombard, Ill., for 10 years before enrolling at the University.

“My dad taught me a lot about the restaurant business,” he said.

As a student at the University, Monti was a member of Phi Sigma Epsilon (now known as Phi Sigma Kappa), for six years, which was how he got his nickname.

“I was so much older than the rest of the guys in the fraternity, and was president for two years, so the guys called me ‘Pops,’” he said.

Monti garnered the restaurant’s name from his days in the fraternity.

“I used Delmonti tomatoes in the pizzas I made, and I just shortened it to ‘Del,’” he said. In that instant, Papa Del’s was created.

Throughout his years at the restaurant, he said the two busiest days are Homecoming and Dad’s Day.

“It’s fun to see the alumni return to the restaurant they went to as college students and see how they’ve changed,” he said.

Monti said the most popular pizzas are sausage and pepperoni, with about 65 percent deep dish pizza and about 35 percent thin crust. The most popular combination pizza is sausage and mushroom.

He said stuffed pizza is declining, but that hasn’t stopped restaurant-goers from sampling other toppings.

“I remember when President Clinton was here, and the Secret Service ordered what I call the ‘Holy Trinity’: sausage, pepperoni and bacon,” he said.

It may be a University tradition to get Papa Del’s pizza on game day, but don’t be surprised to find that the long wait is also a big part of that tradition.

“It does take at least two hours to make the pizzas on home football games,” he said. “We don’t take preorders, but we’re making pizzas for hundreds of people, and we want everyone to get the best we have to offer.”

On a busy day, Monti said more than 1,000 pizzas are made.

Thankfully, he has more than 50 staff members helping him out on the job. In fact, three of his employees have worked at the original location for more than 30 years.

He said he cuts back on the number of staff members in the spring because of the lack of football games.

“I come in early every day and start my job, but I love being self-employed,” Monti said. “The work ethic varies because I work seven days a week, but it’s been better over the years.”

But the thing that makes Papa Del’s pizza unique from all the other places on campus is the ingredients.

“We look for quality, quality, quality,” Monti said. “We look for the freshest ingredients to put on the pizzas.”

Since his pizzeria has been in business, Monti said it has been interesting to watch the change in generations influence the popularity of the restaurant.

“A lot of students come here because their parents went here and talked about how popular it was when they went to school,” he said. “And it’s still popular today.”

In fact, one such parent has passed on his love for the restaurant to his daughter.

“When I was a student here, we’d try to go to Papa Del’s once a week,” said Dave Wilhelm, University alum. “When I come up and visit my daughter, that’s usually one of the first places we go. We both love the atmosphere. (The pizza) tastes exactly the same from my days at the University.”

The popularity of the restaurant led Monti to open another location in southwest Champaign, Papa Del’s at the Crossing, in July 2009.

Managed by his daughter Andrea, 33, the restaurant has the exact same menu, but only offers carry-out and delivery options.

“My dad wanted to venture out of his original location because there were so many people requesting to deliver to southwest Champaign because it was difficult for those residents to get to campus,” she said. “He wanted to make that side of town happy and make sure they were getting the same experience without having to drive so far.”

Residents of southwest Champaign aren’t the only ones happy with this new edition.

“We ship frozen pizzas across the country to anywhere FedEx will deliver,” Andrea said.

Since it is such a large campus tradition, Andrea said she gets a lot of phone calls in the middle of the summer for requests for incoming freshmen.

“A lot of people will call in the summer to ask for gift cards to give to incoming freshmen as graduation gifts,” she said.

While a large pizza may seem pricey, it feeds four people, so the price per pound is a lot cheaper than most pizza places, she said.

“As a student here, I saw that a lot of pizza places kept changing (their menus and their locations),” she said.

“Now there’s fewer locations, but Papa Del’s has remained the same.”

Andrea has worked in the restaurant business since she was a young girl.

“I worked at the campus location since I was 11 and all throughout high school and part time in college,” she said. “After I did some internships for my degree, I came back here and worked full time.”

For the newer location, in addition to being busy during home football games, Monti said the busiest time is always the day before Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

“We sold 5,000 pizzas in December of last year,” she said.

Monti has learned a lot from her dad since he opened the business.

“He’s a hard worker and he loves his job,” she said. “He can’t ever not be at the job because there are things he can’t trust that are going to get done.”

Monti said the restaurant tried to change a product, but it didn’t go well with the customers.

“We’ve always had the same ranch dressing, but one time we changed the manufacturer, and had people upset,” she said. “You can’t change anything, especially when you’ve been open for 41 years.”

Robert Monti said he has no immediate plans for the future.

“I just want to keep making great pizzas and make the customers happy,” he said.