Rotella's Italian Bakery
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Rotella's Italian Bakery
Interactive Timeline Rotella's Family History Omaha's Favorite


The Rotella's story is an American success tale that began in Italy, where young Alessandro (Alexander) Rotella raised wheat with his father and brothers.

Lou Rotella Sr., one of Alessandro's sons, said the family milled its own wheat, as well as that of its neighbors. The Rotella's also operated a small bakery. But try as they might, the family couldn't make a decent living.

In an effort to better his family's life, Alessandro brought his wife, Maria, and their first daughter to America in about1909. "My father always said Italy was his mother, because he was born there, but America was his father because it supported him," said Lou Sr.

 

The Rotellas settled first in New York City, where Alessandro worked in the construction business to provide for his family, which added five more children during the years in New York. Things went well until one of the children, Michael, became ill.

Doctors attributed his affliction to the salty sea air, and suggested that Michael's health would continue to deteriorate unless the family moved inland.

Alessandro decided that the family should move to Omaha, where he hoped to get a job with the Union Pacific Railroad. The family moved here in about 1915, and Alessandro went to work for the railroad shortly after.

"My father always said Italy was his mother, because he was born there, but America was his father because it supported him."
- Lou Rotella Sr.
During a 1921 strike, Alessandro found himself in need of work. He went to an Italian bakery which was owned by an old man. Rather than simply hiring Alessandro, the man suggested that he buy the business. Alessandro told the man that buying the bakery was not much of an option. Lou Sr. said his father told the man, "I've got six kids, I'm broke and I don't have a job." However, the two men worked out a deal that made it possible for Alessandro to purchase the bakery by paying the owner $25 each month.

The same year, the Rotellas began operating the bakery, which was at 2117 Pierce Street. The business was family-run from the start. "My mother was very instrumental in the business," said Lou Sr., noting that although Alessandro did not have a formal education, his wife had been educated in Italy. "Between the two of them, they made the business go," he said.

Eventually, there were 10 children in the family. "We all took our turns at the various jobs."
At first, the bakery made bread for its own small retail shop, as well as for Omaha restaurants of the time. Lou Sr. said he can remember riding on the bread truck as his older brothers made deliveries to those restaurants.

Gradually, Rotella's customer list grew. In addition to restaurants, the bakery began producing bread for Omaha grocery stores, which were responsible for a tremendous upsurge in the bakery's business. "It just kept growing after that," said Lou Sr.

Though Alessandro's children worked in the bakery for many years (including during World War II, when his daughter Helen drove the delivery truck), most of them gradually drifted away as they got married and started families of their own.

By 1947, Alessandro had been running the bakery for 26 years and was ready to retire. "My brother Ameado had come home from the Army in 1945 and was helping my father run the bakery. I came home from the Army in 1947 and relieved my father, knowing that I would not have the time to accept a four-year college-wrestling scholarship," said Lou Sr. "My brother Ameado and I Became partners and ran the bakery for the next 28 years."

By 1965, space in the old bakery was no longer adequate. "I knew that we could not grow at 21st and Pierce," recalled Lou Sr., who proposed a move to a 22,000 square-foot building at 24th and Pierce Streets. "I was always confident of investing money, even when everybody was discouraging me." The move proved to be a good one.

As time passed, Lou Sr.'s son, Lou Jr., began working in the business.

"He used to help me when he was in grade school," said Lou Sr. "By the time he was in the 8th grade, he was able to run production in the plant." On Sunday mornings, Lou Jr. would manage the bakery so Lou Sr. and his wife could could go to church.

While at Ryan High School, Lou Jr. continued to work side-by-side with his father, and knew how to run the entire operation by that time. Lou Jr.'s life became extremely busy after he graduated and entered UNO, where he earned a degree in business management. "He worked in the bakery, went to college, and was in the Army Reserve at the same time," said Lou Sr.

In 1975, Lou Sr. bought out his brother Ameado.

The following year, Lou Jr. took over day-to-day operation of the business, which has continued to expand. A 1989 move took the plant from 24th and Pierce to spacious quarters at 108th and Harrison Streets.
Lou Sr. continues to go to work each day. Among his many activities ­ frequent checks to make sure that the ingredients used will assure continued integrity of the finished product.

As the business has grown, so have its product offerings. From a single product in 1921 (unsliced hard-crust Italian hearth bread), Rotella's product line-up now includes over 240 varieties of breads, rolls and other baked goods.

One of the factors behind the company's tremendous growth was a simple thing ­ slicing the bread. Lou Sr. said the original Italian bread was sold unsliced and packaged in a paper wrapper. A quick sale of the product was critical, because the bread would dry out if not sold and eaten within a day or two.

By slicing the loaves and putting them into plastic bags, their freshness and unique flavor were preserved and a convenience factor was created. "Our business just zoomed," said Lou Sr.

Current products include Italian, rye, pumpernickel, sourdough, egg breads and variations on traditional themes, as well as specialty products that are made for large national companies.

Louis J. Rotella Sr. Inducted Into Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame

Louis J. Rotella Sr., president and part owner of Rotella's Italian Bakery, was inducted into the Omaha Hospitality Hall of Fame last October during a gourmet dinner at Metropolitan Community College.

The son and grandson of Italian bakers, Rotella has worked in the family-owned bakery for decades and continues on the job. His son, Louis Rotella Jr., runs day-to-day operations.

The senior Rotella, a standout high school wrestler during his years at Omaha Central, was also inducted into the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame last year. A two-time state champion for Central in 1941 and'45, Rotella placed third in the 1945 Amateur Athletic Union national competition in Dallas. Also in 1945, he became a Midwest AAU champion while competing as part of a team made up of state champions.

Later, he helped young wrestlers at Omaha Ryan High School and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The Nebraska Restaurant Association named Rotella's Italian Bakery as its Purveyor of the Year in 1999. Fifteen years before that, the Omaha Restaurant Association honored Rotella's as Purveyor of the Year.