“You can’t call yourself a true son of Notre Dame, unless you’ve hopped off the bus at the end of South Bend Ave. on a freezing winter night, made your way across Hill Street to the shadowy, little alley that leads down over sand and snow to Niles Avenue, and finally found yourself at the friendly doors of the Sunny Italy Cafe — known more affectionately to the student trade as Rosie’s.”
Scholastic, 10/15/1948, page 18
Sunny Italy Cafe at 601 North Niles Avenue in South Bend was originally called the North Niles Avenue Cafe when it opened in 1926. Two Notre Dame students found the hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant in the early 1930s, became regulars, and befriended the owners Tony and Rosie Vumbaca. The students nicknamed the place “Rosie’s” and spread the word to their friends. Before long, Rosie’s was the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights. By the 1940s, between 100-500 Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students would dine at Rosie’s on Friday night.
Jimmy and Josie Bamber bought Rosie’s in 1940. While they renamed it Sunny Italy Cafe, the nickname “Rosie’s” stuck with the students, faculty, and alumni for decades to come. The popularity of the restaurant enabled the Bambers to renovate their restaurant in 1947, expanding the dining room to seat 150 customers. They catered to the Notre Dame students, staying open late on movie nights and offering lunch and dinner specials (65¢ and 85¢, respectively in 1948).
An obvious choice for Italian Club meetings, Sunny Italy also hosted many other student organization meetings and banquets. In 1955, the Academy of Political Science sponsored a banquet with Paul Butler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, as speaker. In 1961, Republican Congressman Melvin E. Laird of Marshfield, Wisconsin, spoke at the Young Republican Spring Banquet.
In 1976, Scholastic reported that Notre Dame students made up 40% of Sunny Italy’s business. However, by this time, the tradition of students going to Rosie’s en masse began to wane. Today, Sunny Italy is still in its same location on Niles Avenue and is run by the same family all these years later.
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My parents ate there on dates in the late 40s (Dad probably went as an undergrad, too). I can still see, in my mind’s eye, sitting there with my family as a child on Dad’s reunion trip, and I cannot enter St. Joe County without stopping in. Sis has carried on the heritage well. It is not a real football weekend w/o Friday night at Sunny!
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