America’s 14 Best Italian Restaurant Chains
April 26, 2016
These Italian restaurants may not be authentic, but they’re certainly tasty
America’s 14 Best Italian Restaurant Chains
Romano’s Macaroni Grill/Yelp
Like Irish pubs and Chinese takeouts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a moderately-populated town without an Italian restaurant. And for much of the country, that Italian restaurant is a chain. We canvassed the country, and from corporate behemoths like Olive Garden to family-run chains like The Old Spaghetti Factory, we’ve tracked down the 12 best casual, non-pizza Italian chains.
Founded in 1988 in Lexington, KY, there are currently more than 200 outposts of Fazoli’s in 26 states. Today the super-casual chain is best known for its unlimited breadsticks; inexpensive bowls of oven-baked pastas like baked spaghetti topped with your choice of add-ons like meatballs and roasted chicken; oven-baked “Submarino” sandwiches; pizza; and carb-heavy sampler platters heaping with fettucine Alfredo, meat lasagna, spaghetti, and penne with meat sauce. Great for kids, they offer kids’ nights with games and storytelling as well as senior discounts, lunch specials, family platters, and lighter options under 550 calories.
#13 Spaghetti Warehouse
With 14 locations in seven states, The Spaghetti Warehouse is a popular fixture in each of its cities. Like The Old Spaghetti Factory (which came three years earlier), many restaurants are located in old warehouses and each one has a trolley car in the middle of the dining room. Most of these restaurants are also big: the one in Columbus, Ohio seats 800. While you’ll find spaghetti and meatballs and a popular 15-layer lasagna on the menu, much of the menu is non-traditional: baked pepperoni spaghetti, spaghetti topped with beef chili, and fried ravioli are all popular items. There are also several gluten-free options, and each location has a private banquet room.
#12 Olive Garden
There are more than 800 locations of Olive Garden around the country, and for many, this was their first introduction to the world of Italian cuisine. In all honesty, you can’t deny that the $6.99 unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks is a pretty good deal! Their vast menu includes Italian-American classics like the popular ‘Tour of Italy’ with lasagna, chicken parm, and fettucine Alfredo as well as creative Italian-inspired dishes like Moscato Peach Chicken, Steak Gorgonzola-Alfredo, and Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara. The chain has introduced some rebranding in recent years, rollingo out a new logo and more than 20 new menu items, including a new ‘Tastes of Italy’ small plates section, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a menu item that doesn't hit all the right notes. They let you order online, participate in several outreach programs, including Harvest Food Donation, Giving Tree, and Pasta for Pennies, and their servers earn, on average, $14.50 per hour, leading to a turnover rate that's lower than the industry standard.
#11 Zio’s Italian Kitchen
Zio’s has 16 locations across Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, each with an open kitchen and a spacious ‘piazza-style’ atmosphere. Popular menu items include pepperoni bread, Italian nachos, shrimp with artichokes, mushrooms, and tomatoes in a lemon cream sauce, brick-oven pizzas with creative toppings like barbecue or Thai chicken, cheese ravioli on top of linguine, and spicy shrimp and prosciutto with bow tie pasta in Alfredo sauce. They offer an inexpensive lunch deal during the week as well as a $3.99 kids menu. There are also a handful of specials at any given time, including all you can eat soup and salad on Sundays for $7.99, $1.99 kids meals on Wednesdays, and all you can eat pasta on Thursday’s for $9.99.
#10 Buca di Beppo
Buca Di Beppo Italian Restaurant/Yelp
Roughly translated as “Joe’s Basement” (seriously), Buca di Beppo was founded in 1993 and is owned by Planet Hollywood. It’s known for its boisterous atmosphere, family-style platters, vintage photos in every restaurant, and different theme in every location (even though they all have a “Pope Table,” a large, round table in a room by itself, with a bust of the pope as centerpiece). Popular offerings include Cheesy Bread Florentine, square-cut pizzas, prosciutto-stuffed chicken, lasagna, and sausage and peppers. There’s also an expansive gluten-free menu and a “4 Eat for $40” deal. They’re great for banquets and parties, will deliver orders more than $100, and donate $1.00 to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital for every meatball dish sold.
#9 Brio Tuscan Grille
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Brio Tuscan Grille has locations in 22 states from coast to coast. Its menu features a wide variety of scratch-made Tuscan-inspired appetizers, pasta dishes, flatbreads, and traditional Italian entrées, but the restaurant’s grilled items really shine, as the name might imply. Tuscan-grilled pork chops, grilled chicken under a brick, and 14-ounce bistecca all Fiorentina are real standouts. There’s also a wide variety of gluten-free menu items (including pastas), and make sure you drop by the bar during the week, when appetizers start at just $3.95.
#8 Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano
Biaggi’s takes a white-tablecloth approach to Italian dining while still staying casual and keeping prices reasonable. Since first opening in Bloomington, Ill. in 1999, they’ve expanded to 23 locations in 12 states. Popular menu items include carpaccio, sherry tomato soup, black fettucine with lobster, butternut squash ravioli in a sage-brown butter sauce, potato-parmesan crusted tilapia, and osso bucco. There’s a “lighter side” menu with options under 600 calories, gluten-free items, a kids; menu, and a $35 “Pronto Pack” to go, with enough bread, salad, and pasta to serve 4-5 people.
#7 Johnny Carino’s
Johnny Carino’s has more than 130 locations around the world, and while classics like chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, and lasagna are available, it’s the specialties that set this restaurant apart from the pack. Made fresh in-house, they include chicken stuffed with ham, basil, and provolone topped with mushrooms and Alfredo sauce; Parmesan-crusted and balsamic-glazed baby back ribs; and bow tie pasta with meat sauce, Italian sausage, bacon, ham, pepperoni, onions, bell peppers, and cheese. There’s also a wide selection of pizza, family-style platters, and sweet specialty frozen cocktails and martinis. They also cater, and offer a “Pasta Points” loyalty rewards app.
#6 Bravo! Cucina Italia
This Roman-inspired chain restaurant has the same owners as Brio Tuscan Grille, and the décor at the dozens of locations across 23 states is inspired by Roman ruins, with open kitchens. The menu is fun and creative; appetizers include mini calzones and fried ravioli; pastas include braised beef ravioli, roasted vegetable spaghettini, and Pasta Woodie (fettucine Alfredo with grilled chicken and spinach); and grilled items include steak diavolo, filet mignon with your choice of toppings, and a 14-ounce strip. A “Lighter Side of Rome” section includes selections with less than 650 calories, including chicken caprese, grilled salmon, and spicy scallops and angel hair marinara.
#5 Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Romano's Macaroni Grill/Yelp
Founded by Philip Romano near San Antonio in 1989, Macaroni Grill now has more than 200 locations nationwide and in countries including Egypt, Mexico, and Japan. The menu features a nice selection of antipasti, salads, flatbreads, a “create your own pasta” option, Italian-American classics, entrées including chicken Marsala and Calabrese steak, and “Braisers” including a giant pork shank with Marsala wine and mushrooms. While the menu is a bit more traditional red sauce Italian than its more outside-the-box competitors, they stay current with a ‘Lite’ menu of under 600 calorie items and rotating seasonal specials. They also offer catering, gift cards, and online ordering.
#4 The Old Spaghetti Factory
One of the older Italian chains around, The Old Spaghetti Factory got its start in Portland, Ore. in 1969. Many of the chain’s 45+ restaurants are located in old refurbished warehouses, and décor is heavy on antiques including chandeliers, stained glass, and brass fixtures, with a streetcar inside in each location. Just about everything on the menu is made on-premises from scratch, and entrées come with bread, soup or salad, a drink, and dessert. Family-owned and operated, the menu contains a lot more than just spaghetti; favorites include jumbo crab ravioli, garlic shrimp fettucine, lasagna, and pasta with Mizithra cheese (a sheep’s milk cheese imported from Greece) and browned butter. There’s also a kids menu, a gluten-free menu, and a senior’s menu, and most locations also have banquet rooms.
Bertucci's Italian Restaurant/Yelp
The first Bertucci’s opened in Somerville, Mass. In 1981, and the centerpiece of each of the 85 restaurants is its brick oven, which turns out everything from legitimately delicious pizza to calzones and roasted vegetables and meatballs. You can build your own pizza or calzone or order from their large and creative selection. Other brick oven favorites include a new chicken parm casserole, lasagna rustica, and chicken piccata. Popular pastas include lobster, basil, and smoked mozzarella ravioli and rigatoni wth roasted peppers and sweet Italian sausage. There’s also a $7.99 lunch special and Roman-style party pizzas, and the emphasis on scratch-made food and a comfortable atmosphere has gained it a popular following.
#2 Maggiano’s Little Italy
Maggiano's Little Italy/Yelp
Maggiano’s had its origins in 1991, when legendary restaurateur Rich Melman opened the first one in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, and there are currently locations in 22 states. It boasts a menu of classic Italian-American favorites along with some specialties like their Rigatoni ‘D’ with chicken, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Marsala cream sauce and higher-end items like 16-ounce Prime New York steak and veal porterhouse. Two main differentiators set Maggiano’s apart from the pack: they deliver, and offer a separate ‘Family Style’ menu for parties of four or more looking to share large platters. Many locations also offer large private event spaces.
#1 Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Carrabba’s Italian Grill/Yelp
Carrabba's was started by two Sicilians from Texas, Johnny Carrabba and his uncle Damian Mandola, with a single Houston location that opened in 1986. Today there are nearly 250 locations in 32 states, with the majority in Florida, where its parent company, Bloomin’ Brands (which also owns Outback Steakhouse, Fleming’s Steakhouse, and Bonefish Grill) is headquartered.
Many of the dishes served at Carrabba’s are based on recipes passed down from Mandola’s mother, and the menu is expansive and intriguing. Pastas include lobster ravioli, shrimp and scallop linguine alla vodka, and old-school lasagna; chicken dishes include the popular Chicken Bryan, topped with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and lemon butter sauce; and other offerings include Roman-style pizzas, prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin, and filet mignon with a variety of toppings. They also offer a “15 under $15,” Gluten-Free, and “Under 600 Calories’ menus, a respectable wine list, as well as catering, online ordering, and specials including “Amore Mondays” with three-course dinners starting at $12.