We know them. We love them. We grew up with them. That’s right– Chef Boyardee canned pastas are an American staple: the saving grace of busy parents, the provider of last minute meals, and the microwave safe option for broke college students. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed a Chef Boyardee meal at some point, or at the very least heard of the brand. For us Clevelanders, we can take special pride in knowing that the creator of the Boyardee products, Hector Boiardi, actually started his business here, in Cleveland!
Born in the village of Piacanza, Italy on October 22nd, 1897, Boiardi was instantly drawn to the kitchen. He found great joy in cooking, and worked as an assistant in one of the local restaurants. In May 1914, Boiardi braved the overseas journey to the United States where he entered through Ellis Island. He lived in New York City upon arrival, where he reconnected with his brother Paolo, who was the maître d’ of the Plaza Hotel. Paolo was able to get Hector a job in the kitchen, and soon Hector worked his way up to being head chef. This sparked a lifelong record of success for Hector Boiardi, so much so that he was even contracted to cater Woodrow Wilson’s wedding to Edith in 1915. After continual success, he eventually moved to Cleveland where he opened his first restaurant, Il Giardino d’Italia which translates to “The Garden of Italy.” The restaurant became very popular, and people would even request jars full of Boiardi’s special pasta sauce.
In 1927, Boiardi would meet two people that would change his life and legacy forever. Maurice and Eva Wiener were regular patrons of Il Giardino d’Italia and noticed the huge opportunity behind the home-cooked Italian food. They owned a grocery store franchise and approached Boiardi with the idea to can his goods and sell them nationwide. Maurice and Eva helped Boiardi develop a canning process for his pastas, and by 1929 the canned goods were released to the public. This release was a huge success, and prompted a swift and massive expansion of Chef Boiardi’s products.
Using only natural and homegrown ingredients, Boiardi moved his factory to Milton, PA where there was more room to grow mushrooms, tomatoes, and other produce needed for his recipes. This factory is still the headquarters for Chef Boyardee products, and produces that canned goods that we know and love today. Amidst all this success, Boiardi decided to change the spelling of his name to Boyardee to ensure that his American customers would pronounce his name correctly.
The Boyardee business grew throughout World War Two, providing meals to soldiers overseas (which would result in Boiardi being awarded the Gold Star Award of Excellence from the US War Department) and even managing a Welcome Home Dinner for World War Two soldiers hosted by President Wilson. However, as political and economic climates changed in the 1950’s and the Boyardee product line was beginning to expand internationally, Boiardi could no longer keep up with managing his business and decided to sell the Boyardee brand to American Home Foods, now called International Home Goods. While Boiardi fought against this sale initially, it ended up being a very lucrative business move for Boiardi as American Home Foods asked him to become the face of the brand. Yes- the face on the can is actually Hector Boiardi! Boiardi would end up earning millions due to his brand presence.
Boiardi passed away due to natural causes in 1985 in Parma, OH. He is buried at All Souls Cemetery in Chardon, OH. His story is a shining example of the American Dream that so many immigrants imagined upon migrating through Ellis Island, and is an inspiration to anyone who dares to dream big enough.
Visit Boiardi’s Memorial
Post written by Katie Karpinski