From lasagna to pizza and creamy pasta topped with Parmesan cheese, Americans have a love affair with Italian food. Ninety-seven percent of Americans will tell you they love to "mangia italiano" -- or eat Italian.
For almost 30 years, the Olive Garden has been serving Italian comfort food to diners, becoming the world's largest and most successful Italian-style restaurant chain.
"They grew up with [Italian food], it's very familiar," said Clarence Otis, CEO of Darden Restaurants, the largest full-service restaurant company in the world and owner of several chain restaurants, including the Olive Garden, Capital Grille and Red Lobster. "And I suspect that's true whether your heritage is Irish or Italian, African American or Latino. I would say Italian food from that perspective is soul food."
Each week, more than 4 million Americans -- mostly women in their 40s and 50s -- seek out Italian soul food at one of the 721 Olive Garden restaurants around the United States. An average check of $14.95 contributes to Olive Garden's nearly $3.3 billion in annual sales -- even during these tough economic times.
Otis says that the average American family dines out about four times a month, but during financial downturns that number is cut in half. So their number one secret for keeping the diners coming in is stressing Olive Garden's value.
Unlimited salad and breadsticks are a major draw. Last year, Olive Garden served 612 million breadsticks and 165 million family style bowls of salad. That's enough for the entire population of the United States to have two servings of salad and two breadsticks each.
"We serve almost 9 million breadsticks a day at Olive Garden," said Dave Pickens, president of the Olive Garden. "The key is they've got to be made perfectly."
Their signature starters are baked in hundreds of batches each day and delivered fresh to every restaurant; the breadsticks, like the chain's soups and sauces, are never frozen.
The never-ending pasta bowl also lures customers. Olive Garden was the first full-service Italian restaurant to offer unlimited pasta portions, an all-you can-eat combination of different kinds of pastas and sauces for $8.95.
While some diners belly up for bowl after bowl, the promotion actually is profitable, since the average Olive Garden customer eats only about 1½ bowls of pasta.
The chain doesn't offer the never-ending pasta bowl year-round. Instead, it runs the promotion to help boost sales at times when dining out tends to dip and customers are more enticed by a good value.
"Traditionally, the fall season was not a very robust season for our industry," Pickens said. "Summer's over, you've taken your vacation, kids are going back to school."
As for the rest of the menu, many of the dishes take a few detours on their way over from Italy.
"You know, we're really focused on being genuine, not necessarily authentic," Pickens said. "We're not sure authentic would translate so well."