Jerry Caniglia remembers the night comedian and Rat Pack member Joey Bishop sipped a drink in the Cascade Lounge at Caniglia's Venice Inn.
His brother, Chuck, remembers the night when Dan Rowan and Dick Martin of “Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In” took the stage in the Cascade, with its sunken bar, stage and indoor waterfall that lent its fanciful name.
The brothers remember when comedian and entertainer George Kirby ate a meal in the restaurant after a night performing at Ak-Sar-Ben. They remember performances from comedian and television star George Gobel and others from Henny Youngman, a comedian and violinist famous for his one-liners.
“That was the heyday,” Jerry Caniglia said, sitting at a table in that same lounge in the restaurant where he and his brother have worked for 50 years. “It was the most fun, after those Ak-Sar-Ben shows, for a 16-year-old kid.”
Both men — Jerry is 64 years old, Chuck is 69 — have worked at the restaurant since they were ages 10 and 12, respectively.
“I've never worked anywhere else,” Chuck said. “Things have changed since then.”
Ak-Sar-Ben lent Caniglia's Venice Inn its swank customers and high-profile celebrity guests during the 1960s and '70s, when both men say the restaurant — and lots of other old-school Omaha steakhouses like it — were packed every night. But the track closed, and chain restaurants opened. Things changed.
Now that the brothers have accepted a developer's offer and are closing their restaurant May 3, they think one reason the offer fell onto their plates was the newly developed Aksarben Village, in its second heyday of sorts.
“It's blowing up over there,” Chuck Caniglia said. “We don't want to exit, but the time is right for us.”
The brothers have no idea what the developer has in mind. A decade ago, they wouldn't have even entertained an offer.
Take a look at the sign outside Venice Inn, slightly faded in the daylight but still glowing neon bright at night, and you get a sense of the history behind it.
The brothers think of Venice Inn's Cascade Lounge as Omaha's first venue for comedy acts. Comedian, singer and St. Louis resident Davey “Nose” Bold, popular in the 1960s, worked as the in-house comic eight months a year at Venice Inn. He's the one who brought the stars to the restaurant after their sets at Ak-Sar-Ben.
The two men remember getting teased by Bold as they bussed tables, and though he never made it to the big time, he had lots of local fans. Customers knew they could find comedians on the stage at Venice Inn.
They also packed the place for a specific kind of old-school Sicilian food served in big portions for the right price. Some of the recipes they still use today belong to the Caniglias' grandmother, Giovanna.
The Caniglia food dynasty began with Giovanna, who moved to Omaha before World War I from Sicily along with Cirino Caniglia. The couple married in Omaha in 1910 and opened a bakery in Little Italy in 1920. The bakery later became Caniglia's Pizzaria and then the Original Caniglia's Steakhouse, which closed in 2005.
Their children and grandchildren opened and operated many now-closed Omaha classics: Mister C's Steakhouse, Al Caniglia's Drawing Room, Palazzo 'Taliano, Luigi's, Top of the World at Woodmen Tower and numerous others. Other Caniglia relatives are still involved in the Omaha restaurant scene, including two Caniglia descendants who own and operate famed steakhouse Piccolo Pete's. A distant cousin of Chuck and Jerry Caniglia runs the 11-Worth Cafe.
Customers have always flocked to Caniglia restaurants. At Venice Inn, they booked private birthday parties and prenuptial dinners. They came for holidays and special events but also just on random weeknights to see the Caniglia brothers. And they also saw the same staff. One waitress and one bartender have been at the restaurant for 33 years each. A host has been there for 28. A cook started when he was 15 years old and is still there now, 30 years later.
“It has been a joy to serve those customers for all those years,” Jerry Caniglia said. “And we would not have survived without our loyal staff.”
They expect customer favorite dishes to fly out of the kitchen in the next 12 weeks: Veal and Chicken Parmesan. Their New York Strip, which landed the restaurant in a battle against Piccolo Pete's on the Travel Channel show “Food Wars.” (Venice Inn won.) And the house-made liver pate on the salad bar, a long-time staple.
The brothers plan to work every day until the restaurant closes, and they will be open for at least one more holiday: Berkshire Hathaway weekend.
Both Caniglias say the time is right for them to bring the family's Italian restaurant reign to an end. But it's bittersweet.
“I like to think of this as a nearly century-long love affair with Omaha,” Jerry Caniglia said. Chuck nodded.
“When places like this one are all gone,” Chuck said, “Omaha will miss that flavor.”