Acquaviva Winery: Putting the ‘Family’ in Family Business

This Maple Park destination has grown and evolved in many ways over the past decade. Indeed, its search for relevance in a busy market is filled with big ideas, ambitious plans and an homage to one family’s heritage.

It started out as a hobby, a way to honor family traditions. Somewhere along the way, though, it became a destination for good wine, good food and unforgettable gatherings.

Acquaviva Winery, 47W614 Illinois Route 38 in Maple Park, is like a little slice of Italy nestled among cornfields and family farms. Its location between Elburn and Maple Park may feel like the middle of nowhere, but after more than a decade of entertaining the public, Acquaviva is firmly on the map for many area diners. An exquisite atmosphere, authentic dining and a fresh take on Midwestern wines draws many curious diners and brings them back for more.

“This isn’t the kind of place where someone just says, ‘Oh, let’s drive by and get a sandwich,’” says Joe Brandonisio, general manager. “You’re coming here for a purpose. So, we don’t get drive-bys or someone who’s just browsing. No one’s driving to the edge of Maple Park to find a restaurant. They know they’re coming here.”

And they come for all reasons. During the warmer months, they come for weddings and other social events that keep the place buzzing all weekend. During the winter months, they come for the restaurant, with its slice of southern Italian cuisine and a lineup of 17 wines, each of which is produced in-house from grapes raised on-site. They come to soak in the scenery, where gently rolling hills, cornfields and grain bins meet rows upon rows of lush grapevines. And, they come to revel at the architecture and artistry inside the winery’s central venue.

Reaching this point has been a journey filled with bold ideas, ambitious plans and plenty of growing pains. But it’s also a story filled with reward and equally bold ideas for the years to come. It’s a family affair where business and relations go hand-in-hand.

“We’ve been here 13 years and it feels like we’ve been doing it forever,” says Brandonisio. “There’s that Italian tradition, the immigration story of what they did when they were at home, and how it evolved into what we have now. This was once just a hobby for my father.”

September Wine

For years, Vito Brandonisio, his father and brothers gathered every September to make wine and soppressata, a cured Italian salami. As they did so, these immigrants from Italy shared stories and swapped memories of the old country, which Vito had left as a boy. Inevitably, the occasion stirred up fond memories of Grandpa Giuseppe’s vineyard in southeastern Italy.

“My father, as a young boy, would go there and he would tell us stories – my brothers, and my sister and I – when we were growing up,” recalls Joe Brandonisio. “He would tell us how he went to his grandfather’s winery and it was called Acquaviva. He had these fond memories.”

In time, the tradition passed down to the next generation as Joe, the middle of Vito’s six children – Ralph, Vinny, Vito, Vinessa and Dino – joined his siblings and cousins for the annual making of September wine and soppressata.

One day, their father made a discovery while building his new home in the country between Elburn and Maple Park.

“As we were doing excavation, we found the soil was sandy, rocky soil,” recalls Joe. “My father said, ‘We can grow grapes here. What kind of grapes can we grow here?’ So, we did some investigation, had the soil tested and said, ‘This is perfect.’ We started planting, and you need to know my father does nothing small. If he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.”

The elder Brandonisio started with 2 acres of vines in the summer of 2001. The vineyard soon grew to 5 acres, and then 10 acres, and then 20 acres.

“Before you know it, we’ve got this huge vineyard and we need machines and men,” says Joe. “The work it took us – and that was even before we had the winery.”

The winery was born about six years after the first vines went in the ground, after the Brandonisios bought a 2-acre plot just to the north of the family vineyard along Illinois Route 38. They broke ground at a fortuitous time for a family that had spent decades making a living in the construction industry.

While the nation’s economy lurched and the construction industry slowed down, Brandonisio’s crews kept busy. Joe was tapped to oversee the new project. He was a natural, given his work with the family business and the time he’d spent as a teenager working at a pizzeria. He even spent a few years running his own restaurant. By the time Acquaviva Winery reached its 2010 debut, Joe was fully invested.

“This was rolling so fast that it was hard to go back to what I was doing before,” he says. “So, I stayed and my father and I got it started. My brothers still came out and helped when they could, but between my father and I, we really took it to the next level.”

Joe still laughs about the startup mentality the winery had in those early years. Still honing the vision for a winery, the Brandonisios started off with wine tastings and small plates to complement them.

“Being Italian, we were like, ‘Let’s do some small plates to have with wine,’ and that turned into these massive plates of food, because we started cooking like we’d cook at home,” he recalls. “It turned into this massive restaurant where we were moving 400 people on Saturdays, every weekend.”

It got so busy the complementary valet service was parking cars in a small lot, the vineyard – anyplace they’d fit.

“It got to the point that, if we didn’t have valet you couldn’t get in,” recalls Joe.
Within a few years, the Brandonisios had taken over 6 acres west of the winery, and by 2015 they’d added another 35 acres to the north.

Today, the family maintains 85 acres. It’s a production winery, a restaurant and a busy venue for weddings and other social occasions, which accounted for nearly 80 events every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from April to November this past year.

Dining Destination

Winter is a prime time to take advantage of Acquaviva Winery’s restaurant. Weddings and social events quiet down, leaving the dining room open more consistently every weekend.
The menu reflects a genuine taste of southern Italy, but it appeals to many palates with its offering of steaks, pastas, fish, woodfired pizzas and wines.

Fresh Lake Superior whitefish, New York Strip steaks and Atlantic salmon steal the show, says Brandonisio, but so does the Zuppa Di Mare, which combines mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp and a mild-spiced marinara sauce with linguine pasta.

The woodfired pizzas, with a thin crust and slight charring, include options such as the classic margherita; a bianca with olive oil, garlic and artichoke hearts; and the Alla Puttanesca, which comes with plum tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, roasted onion, garlic, roasted eggplant and kalamata olives.

“We also have chicken dishes from Saltimbocca to piccattas,” Brandonisio says. “Our fried calamari, I would rate it against anybody else’s. It’s top quality and it’s cooked the perfect way.”

An essential complement to the menu is Acquaviva’s lineup of award-winning wines, which represent sweet, semi-dry and dry whites, dry reds, a rose and seasonal selections such as sangria and Christmas Wine, the latter of which mixes a slight mulling spice in a sweet, medium-bodied white wine.

“When it comes to our food, we can pair anything you’re eating to any of our wines,” says Brandonisio. “If someone has a request or questions about a wine or pairing, we can definitely answer their questions and lead them to a selection.”

Winemaker Sergio Benavides, who’s been with Acquaviva since 2010, brings a wealth of experience with winemaking in California, Europe and his native Chile. As he oversees Acquaviva’s 40-acre vineyard and nearly two dozen varietals, he seeks to produce something that truly stands apart.

While Benavides’ work pays homage to many traditional Italian wine styles, he also imparts a distinctly Midwestern flavor. Acquaviva’s two dozen grape varietals are uniquely bred to withstand Illinois’ seasonal swings, and fruits such as Prairie Star, Brianna, Frontenac, Marquette and Marechal Foch yield flavors distinct from their Italian or Californian cousins.

“For me, the dream was to silence the people who said, ‘In Illinois, you’re never, ever going to make good wine,” Benavides says. “I will show you I can do it.”

And show he has. Acquaviva’s top-selling wines repeatedly rack up awards from the likes of Finger Lakes, the Indy International Wine Competition and the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition.

Benavides enjoys watching customer reactions and hearing their honest feedback. Always adjusting his formulas, Acquaviva’s winemaker listens for the subtle noises that indicate one’s satisfaction – and the clues that an oenophile is in his midst.

“They say, ‘You bring red grapes from the West Coast? It’s impossible to make wine like this in Illinois, in the Midwest,’” explains Benavides. “That, for me, is the best, when they know about wine a lot and they confuse our wine with wines from France, from California – and they don’t believe that the main source of our wine is right across the street.”

Setting the stage for Acquaviva’s menu and wines is the touch of Italy within the rich architectural setting. Marble tile, grand columns and arches, murals and a stunning dome transport diners to southeastern Italy, where the Brandonisio family originates. Located at the grand entrance, above a heavy wooden door, a hand-painted dome wows visitors and complements the nearby murals, all of which were painted by Russian artist Andrew Zabela-Zabelin over 10 months.

“We built a scaffold for him, and he sat up there on a bucket and painted,” says Brandonisio. “If you look at it in depth you see so much detail work. And it wasn’t just the dome. It was the Venetian plaster on the outside, the inside of these arches, the columns, the crest over the bar, the scene of Venice on the wall. Even the coffered ceiling up there. It looks like molding, but it’s all hand-painted artwork. It’s pretty incredible stuff.”

The winery dining room is open for lunch and dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but it’s typically closed during events – particularly in the summer and early fall. Reservations are encouraged.

Lessons Learned

More than once, Brandonisio has found himself falling back on the wisdom of his father. Insights from the family’s longtime construction business has left a lasting impact on Acquaviva.

“My father always said when we were growing up that you need to diversify,” he says. “You need to find different avenues, because at least if one doesn’t work you have other sources of money, and sometimes that’ll get you through. It sure did with COVID.”

Acquaviva Winery was two months away from its 10th anniversary celebration when Gov. JB Pritzker forced businesses to close across the state because of the COVID-19 virus. While Acquaviva’s restaurant was down and its events were on hold, Brandonisio fell back on the strength of the winemaking operation.

“Restaurants truly suffered. Some made out, but look at how many closed up,” he says. “I had friends who lost their restaurants because they couldn’t get through. We’re lucky we had so many different avenues.”

Capitalizing on the winery’s inventory, Brandonisio took advantage when the state allowed craft beverage companies to deliver their products and serve carry-out drinks. Acquaviva started special promotions that kept the bottles moving.

“Four days a week we were loading up the truck and driving out to Dixon, Alsip, Barrington, Chicago, and we were dropping off cases of wine to peoples’ homes,” he says. “That got us through. We were lucky to have the supply of wine we had.”

The revenue was critical, especially considering that the vineyard never shut down. It was never a realistic possibility.

“We said we may have to cut back somewhere else, because we have no choice to cut out there,” Brandonisio says. “That vineyard is our life.”

Looking Toward the Future

These days, Brandonisio believes the biggest concern is relevance. The question is how a vineyard and winery that’s off the beaten trail can continue drawing diners from Chicago, Barrington, the Tri-Cities, Rockford and beyond – and do so while balancing a busy social events calendar. Therein lies the challenge as Brandonisio looks toward Acquaviva’s second decade and beyond.

“We’re becoming that place where a reservation is a must,” says Brandonisio. “That’s especially true given our location. The last thing I want is for someone to spend time coming out here only to find that we’re closed for an event.”

To entice the public on those off-times, Brandonisio is developing ideas for public events such as wine tastings and ticketed gatherings that can coexist with weddings and other private events. But first, he’s clearing out space in the winery. A new storage facility to the north will free up room for all sorts of possibilities inside the winery, he says.

“The more we can clear out, the more I can do for the public downstairs,” he says. “The more space I have for events, the more events I can do for the public in the winery. We’ve lost that, unfortunately. That’s one thing we have lost is for the public to experience what we have to offer even when we’re closed for weddings.”

Along those lines, Brandonisio sees the possibility of connecting with the growing collection of craft brewers, distillers and winemakers in DeKalb County. Whether it’s a “booze trail” that attracts out-of-towners or a countywide festival, he sees plenty of opportunity to raise everyone’s profile.

“We’re all doing something a little different, so let’s put it together and have fun,” he says. “There’s no reason we can’t work together.”

Wherever things go, Brandonisio can still look back and laugh at some of the ways Acquaviva has grown and matured. From a startup mentality to a mature winery and dining destination, this company continues to follow a vision inspired by family tradition.

“I have some staff who’ve been here since we opened 13 years ago,” says Brandonisio. “They still say to me, ‘Do you remember what it was like when we first opened?’”