MOUNT PLEASANT — The Great Depression. World War II. Two fires in 1967 that completely destroyed the inside of the restaurant. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic. Wells Brothers Italian Restaurant has survived it all.
The pizza-making landmark at 2148 Mead St. has lived a long life so far — long enough to tell tales of withstanding historic events — and will lock it in by celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2021.
“Every day makes a different memory,” said Bill Rivers, who has been owner of the family restaurant since 1999. “My uncle told me, ‘If you kept a diary every day of what happens here, you could make a whole book.’”
Busy before it even opens
Friday morning, Rivers, 66, sat in the empty dining room of the otherwise bustling restaurant, arms folded. Every now and then, he looked over at his daughters, Liz Surendonk and Elise Rivers, who handle the daily operations of the business. Though the restaurant wouldn’t be open for at least another 15 minutes for its Friday shift, the kitchen was already getting lots of orders.
The phone rang without end in sync with the cooks loading up the ovens and the staff rattling out orders. For a moment, it felt like everyone working at Wells Brothers was like a family getting ready for breakfast before leaving for the day.
“It’s the microcosm of life here,” he said. “I’ve seen it. The ups and downs.”
Jim and Dominic Wells, Rivers’ grandfather and great uncle respectively, opened Wells Brothers in 1921.
Since then, it has seen only other family members taking it over, trickling all the way down to Rivers’ ownership as the third-generation owner in the last two decades.
Wells Brothers was a pool hall and a tavern before fully becoming the restaurant it is now, which is widely famous for landing on numerous nationwide and statewide top ten pizzas lists; and locally beloved, having won The Journal Times’ Best of Racine County Best Pizza/Italian Restaurant award time and again.
“I was here when I was 13,” Rivers said.
He stopped working at the restaurant at about 24 years old to start his own siding company, but eventually went back to Wells when he was around 42 years old.
“I’ve always been involved in the restaurant,” Rivers said. “So much hard work goes into it. It’s the tradition of the family.”
Rivers’ daughters, Surendonk and Elise Rivers, are next in line to take over.
“Growing up with this in our family, to be a part of it, it’s an honor,” said Surendonk, 41, who was a teacher for 16 years before working full-time at the restaurant.
Even if you’re not a member of the Wells family by blood, Rivers and his daughters will still treat you like it, whether you’re a customer or a staff member.
Amy Lalor began working at Wells Brothers when she was 18 years old. Now 33, she said she “couldn’t be at a better place.”
“Bill would give his shirt off his back for you,” Lalor said.
All of the recipes are the exact same from when Wells Brothers first opened, Rivers said. Rivers recalled watching his grandmother, Rose Wells, in the kitchen on Saturday mornings.
“I asked her, ‘How do you know?’” Rivers said, of how his grandmother knew when things were cooked to her liking. “’You just know, Billy,’ she told me.”
The centennial anniversary
Rivers said he wants to thank the customers — whom he calls extremely loyal — for their support over the last century. “They treat us with so much love,” he said. “They over-tip, they show up, no matter what.”
“It’s been so great to see their kids growing up, and then to be able to see their kids’ kids come in,” Rivers said of his customers.
Elise Rivers, 32, who formerly worked in logistics before moving to the restaurant full time as well, said it’s been wonderful to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
“We’re very happy we can still be here,” Rivers said.
The restaurant hasn’t made plans to celebrate its centennial yet — the family doesn’t even know the exact date the restaurant opened — but the dining room is set to open back up April 1st after serving only carryout since the initial stages of the pandemic.
For more information on the Wells Brothers’ history, as well hours and menus, visit the website at wellsbrosracine.com. The restaurant is open for carryout only, 11 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.