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Homemade Italian served up along busy highway

Jim Sorrentino (left) his sJustRay Serrkitchen Julia’s Pizzeri  Restaurant Gurnee. | TinJohansson/for Sun-Times Media

Jim Sorrentino (left), his son Justin, and Ray Serra in the kitchen at Julia’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Gurnee. | Tina Johansson/for Sun-Times Media

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Pizzeria & Restaurant

2301 N. Hwy. 41, Gurnee

Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Carryouts, delivery and catering are available.

Call (847) 625-7899

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Updated: November 5, 2013 5:03PM

Having a restaurant on the side of a major thoroughfare can be a good thing, especially when you offer homemade Italian goodness.

Julia’s Pizzeria & Restaurant, located in a small strip mall anchored by a gas station just north of Stearns School Road on Route 41, was formerly home to a greasy fried chicken joint.

In April, Ray Serra and business partner Jim Sorrentino, friends since childhood, cleaned up the 1,800-square-foot place and opened a bright and sunny restaurant with plenty of seating.

The two had lived on the North Shore and worked in the same city. Sorrentino who now has a home in Bristol, Wis., retired after 25 years as building and grounds director at the Highland Park High School District. Serra was operations manager in charge of maintenance at Highland Park Grade School District for 15 years.

Named for Serra’s wife Guiliana, Julia’s serves up recipes from the old country, a culmination of the Serra and Sorrentino families who hail from the same province — Cosenza in Southern Italy.

“About 50 percent of our business is from locals, and the rest comes from people driving by,” said Serra of Grandwood Park. “Most of them are repeat customers.”

Among the drive-by diners are truck drivers and construction workers who bring their bear-size appetites to the table. “You know what they say about truck drivers,” said Serra. “They always know where to get good food.”

While Serra and his wife do a good deal of the cooking, his 82-year-old mother Rita is on board churning out her own specialties including gnocchi. His partner’s son Justin, 29, schooled in culinary arts from the Illinois Institute of Art, brings his skill by whipping up his special vodka and white sauces. Meanwhile, Sorrentino keeps things sparkling while occasionally experimenting with dishes. Affordable lunches are popular here including fresh cooked and sliced Italian beefs for $5.95, homemade Italian sausage for $4.95, and meatball sandwiches for $4.95. Lunch specials include one slice of pizza and a soft drink for $3.50; or two slices with a drink for $5.50. Sandwiches made with homemade focaccia are also offered.

Serra, who began his love of cooking by working in pizza restaurants as a teenager, is now busy making his all-natural pizza dough at Julia’s, as well as baking dense and delicious focaccia bread, infused with olive oil, herbs and topped with fresh tomato sauce.

From the number of orders, locals seem to like the thin and pan pizza here. The pies are baked in a stone-floor pizza oven, and the owners can churn out up to 8 of them every 10 minutes.

Sausage for sandwiches and pizza is homemade and lower in fat, said Serra who goes through 20 to 30 pounds each week. “I use good pork shoulder and eliminate a lot of the fat,” he said. “If you don’t, you end up with a greasy pizza and no one wants that.”

Though the truckers like their calzones and Italian beefs at Julia’s, they also enjoy sitting down to a hot plate of spaghetti and three meatballs for $8, or lasagna for $6.95. Eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan, each for $6, are also popular.

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