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Panino’s Pizzeria’s Lenny Rago grabs “Best of the Midwest” title with Hog Heaven pizza

Lenny Rago, owner of Panino’s Pizzeria in Evanston, Ill., took home the $5,000 top prize in the 2018 Pizza Pizzazz competition held Jan. 28, 2018. Rago out-baked 45 competitors to claim the prestigious “Best of the Midwest” title for the coming year. The competition was held in conjunction with the Mid-America Restaurant Expo (#MAREXPO), held Jan. 28-29, at the Columbus Convention Center.

Rago won the event with his Hog Heaven pizza, built on a pan-style crust topped with barbecue sauce, a blend of ground sausage and pepperoni, apple-wood smoked bacon and mozzarella. A pizza contest veteran, Rago was excited over his first Pizza Pizzazz win.

“It’s good to win in a place where the competition is really good,” Rago said. He credited world champion pizza maker Tony Gemignani with sound advice he believes helped him succeed in Columbus. “Tony said, ‘If you don’t put meat on the pizza in Ohio, you’ll never win.’ That was a good call.”

Asked what he’ll do with the $5,000 prize, Rago said simply, “Use it to compete in Italy later this year. I’m not spending the money on myself. It all goes back into my business.”

Kyle Rosch, a two-time Pizza Pizzazz winner, took home second place and $1,000 for  Brenz Pizza Co. His pizza, named The Bomber, utilized a hand-tossed crust brushed with garlic butter and topped mozzarella and provolone cheeses, followed by homemade meatballs, marinara, parmesan and fresh basil. Rosch manages the Chapel Hill, N.C., branch of the four-unit, Columbus-based company. Third place and a $500 prize went to Craig Allenbaugh of Sauced Wood Fired Pizza in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, for his Miss Piggy pie. The hand-tossed crust was brushed with habanero BBQ sauce and topped with pulled pork, pineapple salsa and Monterrey jack cheese.

Winning the right to call one’s pizza, “Best of the Midwest,” provides pizza makers pride in besting stiff competition and also the resulting sales bonanza. According to past winners, fans often drive from several hours away to taste victors’ pies, and sales spike for months after the contest.

Iron Chef America judge, Mario Rizzotti, who returned this year as Pizza Pizzazz emcee, told the battle’s six finalists their pies were some of the best he’s ever seen.

“This was a very tough competition, but you did yourself proud,” Rizzotti said. “These were pizzas made at the highest level. Congratulations to our winners and our six finalists.”

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...Amazing job and hustle by the staff at the Association to present another version of the annual Mid-America Restaurant Expo. And how cool to have such a great trade show right here in our backyard.” - Vince Stasiulewicz, CPA, CLCS, Hylant

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