Celebrating 96 years in business, a recently expanded production facility and a host of fresh baked goods, Milano Bakery in Joliet, Ill., receives Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s 2011 Baker of the Year award.

Lauren R. Hartman, Editor-in-Chief

As you drive down the street, there’s no mistaking Milano Bakery; the facility and neighboring pastry/bake shop is decorated in red, green and white. In fact, everything Milano is decorated in the color scheme of the Italian flag. That’s because Italian tradition and a sense of family pride run deep within the company. These (and many more) are just a few reasons why Milano has been namedSnack Food & Wholesale
Bakery’s 2011 Wholesale Baker of the Year.

“My grandfather began baking using a brick oven in Lockport, Ill., in 1915 in the Soffiantini’s grocery store. In 1926, he moved the business to our current location on Chicago Street in Joliet [Ill.],” recalls Mario DeBenedetti III, president of Milano Bakery, Inc., Joliet, Ill.     

Today, Mario, together with his brother, Darin DeBenedetti, the bakery’s vice president, run the operation. Mario graduated in 1987 from the American Institute of Baking International (AIB), which today regularly audits the bakery.

“Our father taught us to have a good work ethic,” DeBenedetti says. “Our father could have turned the bakery over to us [at that point], but instead, he had us buy him out in the late 1990s,” he recalls. “Before he passed away in May of 2005, he told my brother, Darin, and I that because of the fact that we had to earn the bakery, he knew we would take good care of it and would fight to make it succeed. Also, having honest, loyal employees has been a big part of who we are.”

Named after the northern Italian city, Milano bakes top-selling items, including Vienna bread and 4- and 6-in. French rolls daily. Brat and sausage rolls debuted about a year ago and cinnamon raisin bread, three-layer jumbo hamburger buns and long French bread were made available about six months ago. All of the items are made with no artificial preservatives and sold fresh every day. “We want to create buns for Italian beef that absorb more juices and develop better-for-you products, such as a 4-in. wheat roll,” DeBenedetti says.

From its 40,000-sq.-ft. production facility in Joliet, Milano and its 50 employees provide some 150 assorted types and sizes of fresh Italian bread, French bread, rolls, sliced breads, Ciabatta, focaccia, boules, Vienna breads, Pullman loaves in several sizes, submarine and Kaiser rolls to hundreds of commercial customers, including restaurants, hospitals, nearby riverboat casinos and various foodservice suppliers within a 35-sq.-mile radius.

The pastry/coffee/bake shop, located in an adjoining building, produces delectable cakes, pies, muffins, donuts, pastries and cookies, to name a few. “We occasionally ship out of state, but mostly distribute to Southern Chicago suburbs and Southern Illinois,” DeBenedetti explains. He is the third-generation of bakers in his family, and learned much of the business from his father, Mario DeBenedetti II, who learned from his father who started it all.

‘Everybody loves a little Italian’
The bakery’s brand image centers around its logo and ad slogan, which reads, “Everybody Loves a Little Italian,” and features an illustration of a little boy and girl eating, what else? A tasty loaf of bread. “We advertise that we have, ‘The Best Buns in Town,’ and stand by our mission statement: tradition, service and quality,” DeBenedetti explains. “The image is also that the product is healthy-it has no artificial preservatives. But we go by TSQ: Tradition, Service and Quality, and we always strive to improve. If we do that, we’re moving the ship forward.”

But, the family-owned bakery has seen plenty of good days and bad, he admits, and has enjoyed successes and withstood bad times, yet the family gets along and keeps pressing on, which is critical to keeping the bakery in top operating form. That’s one of the reasons why Milano has established itself as one of Joliet’s business institutions.

“Since the economy changed, it has forced us to tighten our belt and look at everything more closely. Our core business is grocery stores, but we’re trying to broaden our sales by advertising to the public more, and with sponsorships for the park district and donations to local events. We also participate in many parades and expos and provide samples to foodservice suppliers,” DeBenedetti says. “But this is where we want to stay,” he adds. “It’s the town I grew up in.”

Flexibility and being local counts
Milano’s main advantage over its competition is its long heritage in the area, its quality, attention to detail and service, DeBenedetti says. “We’re constantly changing and reformulating recipes and are also price competitive. One major advantage is that we bake custom products and can do it within 24-48 hours of the request. We’re nimble that way. Our being located where we are is also a big advantage. We can follow through and take good care of customers who might not be served this way by larger or more indirect suppliers.”

Some of the programs and initiatives Milano has on the plate right now include clean-label products. “We like to keep a clean label,” DeBenedetti adds. “It’s very important, just like setting new goals and making quality control improvements. We have a vested interest in becoming more efficient, making our truck routes as efficient as possible and providing what the customers want. So we have regular team-member meetings to discuss everything that’s going on. We are implementing a new quality control system to keep product waste down, and we also introduced a program using product score sheets with images of all of our products to help with quality control. We’re looking at a new way of complying with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) program and want to implement some new company communication programs.”

He also maintains that the bakery will deliver emergency orders to many local customers within an hour or so of ordering. The bakery stopped delivering to private homes in 1957. “Where else can you get that kind of service?” he says.

DeBenedetti adds that he’d also like to expand into fresh baked/frozen production some time in the future. “We revise our product stock-keeping units [SKUs] to accommodate customer needs, so we’re always changing things,” he says. “We also offer custom products for many of our clients.”

Automation mixes with tradition
The production facility has three makeup lines-one, a nearly fully automated “string” line that produces various types of rolls and buns, while another produces bread and the third is a manual line where operators produce specialty artisan items on which the dough is hand-cut and hand-sheeted. While there’s plenty of hand craftsmanship at Milano, automation and technology are continually added to the equation. “We had a major expansion about three years ago to increase production speeds and efficiencies and added updated equipment,” DeBenedetti says. “We now have automated mixing, bagging, dividing, slicing and forming on one line, but for certain customers, we also work dough by hand and create artisan products.

The facility’s recently expanded production space includes a larger packaging area, the automated packaging line and a multi slicer. “We’re also looking at getting an additional food x-ray inspection system for more safety,” he points out. “We will update as necessary, in the future.”

The bakery has been making artisan breads, which are growing in popularity, years before such breads were called artisan. “That’s one point of difference of ours,” he says. “We always made what’s called artisan items for restaurants.”

What’s ahead for Milano? “We hope to see our sales at least double in the next five years,” says DeBenedetti. “We’d like to be baking more products for other bakeries, and as I mentioned, want to enter the baked/frozen arena nationally.” Milano also wants to provide healthier products and check out trends such as smaller, healthier meal portions. “We’re looking at introducing all-natural breads,” he says. “These trends are helping us sell healthier products, making up for some lost sales due to the bad economy. It’s easy to sell something if you believe in what you’re selling-if not, you may get customer once, but you won’t get their repeat business.”

As it always has done, Milano will maintain tradition, service and quality, he says. DeBenedetti is most proud of seeing a family buying Milano products or eating them in restaurants. “Getting compliments and seeing people smile when eating our products makes us feel good. You have to stick to what you’re good at, and we do a variety of things well,” he says. “We will definitely celebrate our 100th anniversary when it gets here. As it gets closer, we’ll start planning on what to do. As long as we make a quality product with a clean label and give the customer what they want at a reasonable price, we’ll be around for another 96 years.”