Alex's Washington Gardens In Highwood Sets The Bar Serving Up The Scornavacco Family's Renowned Original Recipe Italian Dishes And Thin Crust Pizza

Carrying On 80 Years Of Highwood Traditions

HIGHWOOD - Alex's Washington Gardens, 256 Green Bay Road, Highwood, is a renowned, successful Italian restaurant so set in its highly regarded ways it hasn't made many significant changes to its menu or decor for many years.

And why should it? Long time loyal customers keep coming back for more; celebrities and professional athletes continue to find refuge there; and new, younger patrons spurred on by traditional and online marketing methods are travelling many miles to experience and enjoy the restaurant's excellent reputation for serving up what they have come to discover is the best food in Highwood.

The celebrated dining establishment has been one of the centerpieces of Highwood’s highly regarded restaurant row for almost 80 years now since The Great Depression when Grandma Angelina Scornavacco started selling sandwiches and drinks from her yard to railroad workers and passengers getting off and on the old Interurban trolley car line that ran through the North Shore. Her yard became a beer garden known as Washington Gardens. Her sons, Tony and Mondo, built upon her beginnings, developing the location into a restaurant and bar known originally as “Scornavacco’s Washington Gardens”.

In 1944, Tony and Ellen Scornavacco developed and started serving the first pizza to grace the tables of the North Shore, selling up to 300 to 400 on each busy weekend. This unique thin crust pizza is what is still served to this day at 256 Green Bay Road.

But by the 1950s, the restaurant was simply known as Scornavacco’s, which continued for decades until the property was sold in 1994.

In 1982, Tony and Ellen’s son, Alex, wanted his own place so he and his lifelong friend, Bill Bernstein, took the original name of his Grandmother’s entrepreneurial venture and opened “Alex’s Washington Gardens.” For 12 years the restaurant duplicated the cuisine of the original location, but now continues to serve the family recipes to this day.

“When Alex wanted to retire, and there was no next generation of his family wanting to take over, my wife, Michele, and I decided this was a special place, the kind that you just hate to see go away,” said Jim Stoecker, restaurant owner since 2007.

“Many of our customers tell me that we still have the best food in the area, served by an attentive staff that helps guide them through a pleasurable meal and dining experience,” said Stoecker. Our pizza is legendary, the Italian dishes mouth watering. Our regular customers, primarily from Highland Park and Lake Forest and most suburbs this side of Milwaukee Avenue, continue to make us their destination location.”

While there are about 75 items on the regular menu, and about eight rotating monthly specials offered depending on the season and availability of fresh ingredients, the most popular dishes using the traditional Scornavacco recipes include:

•Chicken Parmigiana, which starts with hand carved and pounded flat fresh boneless Perdue chicken breasts, breaded in homemade seasoned Italian bread crumbs, baked with parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, and then topped with a made from scratch and simmered for hours light marinara sauce.
•Tortellini or Linguini Alfredo, choosing either the veal and asiago filled tortellini, or the homemade linguini pasta, and adorned with an Alfredo sauce and fresh sliced mushrooms that is made one sauté pan at a time to order.
•Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels, in a white wine, tomato and garlic broth that has many customers asking for more baskets of warm fresh bread to enjoy the amazing sauce even after the mussels have been consumed.

Virtually everything on the menu is made from scratch in-house including the highly praised desserts, such as the Taffy Apple Sundae, made to order by the salad and dessert chef who assembles vanilla ice cream with caramel, fresh whipped cream, and a specially-presented sliced Red Delicious apple served in a large goblet.

An Italian born local lady, Maria, comes in to make the Tiramisu, and Stoecker's wife, Michele, comes in to make the delicious carrot cake and the Ghirardelli recipe brownies for the sundaes.

Though Highwood and the surrounding suburbs have seen newer, hipper joints replacing the older local dining establishments, Alex's Washington Gardens is sort of a throw-back to a simpler time when everything was made in-house and from scratch. Much of this continued success is from the two main chefs who have been cooking there for 26 and 23 years, respectively, since they learned to make most of the dishes directly from Alex and his mother, Ellen. There are two younger chefs that have each been there for over 10 years.

"The restaurant hasn't been remodeled or redecorated in about 20 years, the cash register still makes that wonderful old sound from the 50s, the music of the "Rat Pack" still comes in through the sound system, and the food and style of service sure haven't changed," said Stoecker.

"So we are committed, and think it is important, that a place like this that has been part of so many people's lives, and a part of local history, is kept going in a way where people can come in and remember a different time and way of life, and maybe even a special memory of their own," he said.

He added: "I've been the "Keeper of the Flame" here at AWG for over four years now and things are going great and people are responding. My staff deserves all the credit. Every last one of
them just loves to work hard and really enjoys pleasing our customers, many of whom really are part of the family here."

Thought the restaurant hasn't changed much, Stoecker is utilizing more modern, aggressive marketing techniques such as social media, e-mail specials and reservations via to attract new customers and remind former customers that the restaurant with its traditions continues on.

Alex's Washington Gardens is open seven days a week beginning at 5:00 p.m. for regular dinner service but also hosts private parties such as luncheons after first communions, christenings, bridal showers, club meetings, and birthdays for a minimum of 30 people. The restaurant also provides catering and carry-out service and has delivery available from a local service.

Complimentary Valet Parking is available Tuesday through Thursday, and for a nominal charge on Friday and Saturday nights.

For more information, directions, menus, and reservations please visit

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