contributed photograph

Angela “Mama” and Jim Chiolino.
contributed photograph Angela “Mama” and Jim Chiolino.
In the world of restaurant work there is a magical moment at the end of the night, when all of the guests have been fed, watered and thanked, and the staff, counting the tips which will soon pad their pockets, reclaim the space where the patrons just sat, resting sore legs, feet, hands and shoulders, and order up that most prized of off-menu items: The Shift Drink. 

“Everybody got a shift drink,” Cheryl Chiolino, owner of Mama’s Supper Club, said. 

“Or nine,” Tony Chiolino, Cheryl’s husband and the grandson of Angela “Mama” Chiolino, chimed in with a laugh. 

Judy Chiolino, Tony’s stepmother and Mama’s daughter-in-law, who met Tony’s father when she started waitressing at Mama’s in the late ’60s, has many fond memories of Mama’s afterhours. It was back before fast food came to the area, when the restaurant would serve dinners until midnight and pizza until one in the morning. 

“The women that we worked with when I was young ... we all had children the same age and then our children grew up to be old enough to be in the kitchen … and it was just a big extended family,” Judy said.

After a long night of work, Judy and the other moms would grab a seat by the window and watch the kids swim under the starry summer night sky.   

Another night, Judy remembers talking with Irene, her sister-in-law, after work. 

“Now we worked together all the time, I don’t know how we had so much to talk about, (but) we’d talk and laugh and talk and have a few drinks and all of a sudden Irene looked out the window and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s getting light! I’ve got to go home!’” Judy remembered.

Tony laughed. 

“I think that happened more than once,” he said. 



Illinois Tavern

After her husband was killed in World War I, Mama traveled to America in 1921 with her young son to visit her brother in Hurley, where she met Jim Chiolino, who would become her husband. After raising a family in Ironwood, Mich., and operating a few bars and a bowling alley, the Chiolinos came to Minocqua to be closer to their daughter, Irene Chiolino Clothier, who, with her husband Bill, had been running The Lakeland Times. The year was 1954 and the Chiolinos were planning on retiring. That is, until Jim saw a desolate broken down bar on the shores of Curtis Lake called the Illinois Tavern. Old habits die hard. 

Jim, a handy man at heart, enjoyed fixing up the place. They opened as “The Bella Vista” with Mama cooking pizza for the patrons and slowly expanding to include more dishes from her native Sicily. After one of the early regulars, Doc Mellis, a ventriloquist, took to calling her Mama, the name stuck, and Bella Vista morphed into Mama’s Bella Vista and then, simply, Mama’s. 

Around 1964, when Tony was two, his father moved the family from Ironwood to Curtis Lake to help out his parents. Tony loved growing up around the restaurant.

“I’d wash dishes and help my grandma make raviolis, lasagnas, simple stuff,” Tony remembered.

Eventually there were two houses built next to the restaurant, one for Tony’s family and the other for Mama and Papa. 

“We grew up on a compound,” Tony said. “It was neat, we could just walk in any time (we) wanted and go see Grandma.” 

Judy married Tony’s father, Thomas Chiolino, when Tony, a twin, was 12. Both having been married before, they had five children between the two of them. 

“I always wanted twins,” Judy said. “I just didn’t expect to get them when they were 12.” 

“That’s the worst time in the world to get them,” Tony laughed. 

“It was the best time in the world for me,” Judy replied.  



Cooking ‘to taste’

Tony said despite growing up living next door to the family restaurant, he wasn’t overworked. 

“We were lucky, because my cousin Bill is 12 years older than I am and Bill was, like, chained to the stove when he was 10 years old. That guy could never get out of the kitchen, but he liked it though,” Tony said. “We were much luckier than that, we had real childhoods and lives. Luckily my father was around to stop them from slave driving us so we didn’t hate it. We really actually liked it a lot.”

Mama’s handwritten recipes left room for improvisation, Tony said, often calling for a “handful of this,” or “a pinch of that.” They could also be easily misinterpreted, like the first time Tony’s brother Jeff made Mama’s ribs. 

Barely a teenager at the time, Jeff followed Mama’s recipe to cook a 30-pound case of ribs, only, instead of adding the “cottage cheese container of onions” that the recipe called for, Jeff smothered the ribs in a bucket of cottage cheese and popped them in the oven. 

“He’ll never outlive it,” Judy said with a laugh. 

Another favorite story is the time Chico, Mama’s pet spider monkey, got angry and broke into the bar and opened all the beer taps, wreaking havoc on the dining room. 

“He loved Mama,” Judy said, but he also loved to escape. “She would just go outside and call, ‘Chico’ and he’d come back for her (but) not for anybody else. He wasn’t really friendly to anybody else.”

Eventually Chico was taken to live at the Milwaukee Zoo. When Mama came to visit him the recognition was undeniable.  

“When he saw her he covered his eyes,” Judy said.

Homecoming

Mama died in 1975 when Tony was 13 and his grandfather died three years later, but the restaurant remained popular. 

After graduating from Lakeland Union High School, Tony pursued a math degree at UW-Stout and married Cheryl Chiolino, his high school sweetheart. 

“I actually thought I was going to be a computer guy,” Tony said. “I went to a school with the best hospitality program in the Midwest and I was math major.”  

One day, in his third year at Stout, Tony had an epiphany. 

“I kind of looked around (and thought) I don’t even like half these people, their personalities weren’t what I was used to,” he said. “As a job in college I tended bar, so I figured maybe I should be the one to go back and take over the reins.”

In 1984 Cheryl and Tony returned to Minocqua, “to help out for awhile,” Cheryl said. Later, Tony’s older brother would return as a cook and his stepsister and brother would come onboard as well. 

Returning to the family compound suited Tony and Cheryl. They had a son and daughter and raised them in the bigger house while Judy moved into the house where Mama, Papa and Irene, Judy’s sister-in-law, used to live. 

“(I) could literally look out (my) window and see (my) mother-in-law, and people would be like, ‘Oh my god, how can you do that?” But it was the best. It was the easiest thing to do,” Cheryl said. 

Judy agreed.

“We’ve never had any conflict. We all worked at the same place, we all lived close by and we all had fun,” she said. “The restaurant being a family business was a real part of our life because it was always there.” 

“It was actually the most joyful part of our lives,” Cheryl said. 



Changing times

There was a time, Tony said, that the restaurant would fill up in five minutes on a Friday night, and just about everyone in the restaurant knew one another. 

“They’d pass food back and forth,” Judy said with a laugh. 

The biggest thing that changed the business, Tony said, was the disappearance of the week-to-week resorts and the rise of condos. 

Now, he said, “we have a good eight weeks in the summer and then it slows down again.”

While Cheryl is proud to call Mama’s a legacy after being in business for 65 years, she acknowledges change doesn’t come easy. 

“I think that the longer a place is in business — especially in the same family — it makes it next to impossible to change too much,” she said.

Tony agreed.  

“People get mad at you when you try to take something off the menu (and we’d say) ‘Oh we can still make that for you, don't get mad!” he said.

The new buyers of Mama’s, Jeff and Shannon Janco, plan to open a restaurant called Minocqua Prime, and Judy, Tony and Cheryl are excited for what they’ll bring to the community. 

“New blood is good for our area,” Cheryl said. 

“If nothing changes here, your town becomes stagnant,” Judy agreed. 

“There’s passion with youth, too,” Tony said.  “With young people coming in there’s new ideas.”

“We were full of them,” Cheryl said with a smile. 



Mama’s last, last call

For only the second time, Tony and Cheryl had gone to Bonita Springs, Fla., to work at a private golf club in the off-season, when they got the call from their realtor. 

“We closed (last year) with the intentions of reopening, and then we got the call with the offer and finally our realtor said, ‘you better get home,’ so it’s been a whirlwind,” Cheryl said. 

They returned April 17 and on the 27th Mama’s opened for one final night. 

“I felt like I was in a reception line at my wedding,” Cheryl said. “There was a time where there was over three hours where I barely moved a step, people kept coming over and talking and laughing, crying and hugging … it was wonderful, it was something that we felt like we really needed to do.”

Tony said it was important to bring closure to not only the family, but also their employees, many who’ve worked for the Chiolinos for over 30 years.

“We just love them all,” Tony said.  



‘Retiring’ to 40 hours a week

For now, Cheryl and Tony will return to Florida and continue working at the private golf club where Tony tends bar and Cheryl waitresses. 

“We’re too young to retire (and) we’d drive each other insane if we weren’t working,” Tony said. 

“We’d drive each other and ourselves insane,” Cheryl contended. 

“Even if we work less — 40 hours a week — that would be kind of nice,” Tony said. “I never wanted to keep track of hours because I would have been sorely disappointed in how much money I made an hour — way below minimum wage.”

Tony and Cheryl agree that, while they’re happy with the sale, saying goodbye to Mama’s after 65 years is bittersweet. 

“We had a good run,” Tony said. Wishing the new owners well, he adds, “If they have half the love and success we did, it will be great.”