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Still digging ‘The Dugout’ life: Mokena man’s Burbank business turns 30

Mike DiStefano Mokenhas owned The Dugout now Burbank institutifor 30 years.  |  Jaime Angio~For Sun-Times Media

Mike DiStefano, of Mokena, has owned The Dugout, now a Burbank institution, for 30 years. | Jaime Angio~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 5, 2014 8:07AM



The economy can be tough on small businesses, many of which open and then soon close when a recession comes around.

For a mom-and-pop Italian beef stand — in this case, The Dugout in Burbank — to survive multiple recessions and be celebrating 30 years of success, one might think the secret must be in the sauce.

Or is it more?

“We make homemade recipes, old Italian recipes,” said Mike DiStefano, 52, of Mokena, owner of The Dugout since it opened its doors on Aug. 13, 1984, at 6300 W. 79th St., where it still operates. “We specialize in a lot of homemade meatballs, we do our beef, and obviously our Italian pepper and egg.”

In a town known for its love of baseball when DiStefano was growing up — Reavis High School and the Burbank Little League programs were powerhouses — the Class of 1979 Reavis graduate couldn’t be prouder of the all-American, 25-foot-by-35-foot eatery that he and his childhood friend, Dan Thielmann, built from the ground up.

“People will drive in from Tinley Park, Plainfield and from all over ... people will come from the city just to try it, and I just think, ‘How amazing,’ ” DiStefano said. “I think, ‘We are this little dinky stand in Burbank and we’ve just had this great, great, great responses.’ It’s just been amazing.”

Amazing things often begin with one great idea.

“I was out of work and it was real tough times in ’82, and me and Danny, we wanted to do something,” DiStefano said. “I said to him, ‘Let’s open a restaurant, let’s do it,’ so we basically just came up with the idea, we had some friends that did it and we thought we could do this, and I said, ‘What do you have to lose?’ ”

When putting together the menu, DiStefano had help from his father Nick, who had experience owning restaurants.

“We knew we were going to do the all-American hamburgers and hot dogs. And my father made homemade meatballs, and at the time, we’re fighting. I said, ‘We can’t put meatballs on there,’ ” DiStefano said. “And (now) we serve pasta, spaghetti and mostaccioli, and he talked me into doing it and we sell a ton of it.”

Coming up with the name for the restaurant was no easy task. But leave it to Mom to save the day.

“I thought, ‘Let’s do an Italian name,’ and at the time ‘Rocky’ was big,” DiStefano said. “So we were trying to come up with a name, and Danny was a baseball player and Danny had all this baseball memorabilia. And so Danny Thielmann’s mom came up with the name, The Dugout.”

The decor was next.

“We put all kinds of stuff on the wall. We have original World Series tickets from the White Sox from 1959, we have original Cubs unused World Series from 1945,” he said.

But getting to what really matters ...

“I love food. I’m 100 percent Italian. I love all kinds of food,” DiStefano said.

And so The Dugout uses real Italian bread and the best of meats. And DiStefano doesn’t take the easy route in preparing ingredients.

“We work our butts off,” he said. “We just don’t buy cans of peppers; we cut peppers, we saute peppers, we’re beating eggs. We’ll go through 200 dozen eggs and it’s hard work.”

That would be to make their famous pepper and egg sandwiches, food for thought for the Lenten season.

While The Dugout never expanded structurally, the menu has seen additions over the years, including adaptations for its health-conscious patrons.

“We’ve added some great stuff. We do a lot of chicken, and all of our chicken is real chicken,” DiStefano said. “We do a Sicilian chicken, which is one of our biggest sellers now, grilled chicken on garlic bread with a little garlic dressing, with lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella and cheese. And we’re doing a lot of wraps now, and like I tell everybody, if we get people that are dieting, they want a beef sandwich, we’ll do them on wraps.”

DiStefano, who also serves as an off-ice official for the NHL, still looks forward to getting to work every morning and opening The Dugout doors after all these years.

“I love it,” he said. “I go to work and it’s basically a routine thing for me. I’m cutting bread, I’m setting everything up.

“Honestly, I’m shocked it’s going to be 30 years. It feels like we just built it,” he said, adding that Thielmann remains a good friend although he isn’t a business partner anymore. “It’s the weirdest feeling in the world. I don’t know where the time went.”

DiStefano credits his success to the people of Burbank.

“I love our city. It’s a very blue-collar city,” he said. “A very tight-knit community, and they have came out and have been great to us.”



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