At the turn of the 20th century, America opened her doors to throngs of immigrants from Western Europe. To the New World, each group brought their unique language and culture, creating ethnic neighborhoods nestled side by side in metropolises such as New York and Chicago. Eventually, the neighborhoods bled into each other. People opened to and actively honored each other’s culture. This melting pot became the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Our story is about one of the people who contributed to our richly diverse national culture.
Born October 22, 1897 in Piacenza, Italy, Ettore (Hector) Boiardi entered the world as the second son of Giusseppi and Maria Maffi Boiardi. At the age of 16, he boarded La Lorraine, a passenger ship of French registry sailing for America’s shores. The young man landed at Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. But one of a swarm of immigrants, he had very little money and no knowledge of the English language. Determined to make a better life for himself, Ettore followed in his brother’s footsteps by securing work in the kitchen of the prestigious Plaza Hotel in New York City. In time, he became its executive chef.
Positioned thusly, word of Ettore’s culinary expertise spread. In 1915, he was selected to supervise the catering of President Woodrow Wilson’s second marriage at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Eleven years later, he ventured out as an entrepreneur, opening his first restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Located at East 9th Street and Woodland Avenue, the chef christened his eatery Il Giardino d’ Italia (The Garden of Italy).
Many patrons enjoyed his cuisine; often, they requested recipes and samples. Generously, Ettore accommodated his clientele. Realizing the demand for his products, he set his sights on marketing them nationally. Using a factory for mass production and touting the low cost of Italian meals for the general public, the chef’s new undertaking blossomed.
In 1938, he moved his operation to Milton, Pennsylvania to improve the quality of his line. There, he grew his own tomatoes and mushrooms that numbered among the ingredients for his products. Proud of his Italian heritage, he marketed his line under the brand name of Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, spelling his last name phonetically so that his American customers could pronounce it easily and correctly.
During World War II, Ettore was honored by the U.S. War Department with a Gold Star of Excellence. Although the chef did not see action, his company had produced millions of rations for American and Allied troops. Struggling later with cash flow and other problems, Ettore sold his business for $6 million to American Home Foods, which eventually became known as International Home Foods.
For three decades — the 1940’s through the 1970’s — Chef Boiardi appeared on TV commercials, promoting his brand. Although his last TV commercial aired in 1979, he never stopped working. He continued to develop new Italian food products until he died on June 21, 1985. Ettore Boiardi came to America a poor Italian immigrant and left it a wealthy entrepreneur. Through his hard work and desire to introduce the U.S. to part of his heritage, he left this world achieving the American dream and making his name a household word for generations.