In an attempt to overcome challenges similar to those faced by their peers in other industry segments — such as sluggish sales and rising operating costs — Italian restaurant operators continue to spark their businesses by providing lighter, fresher fare.
When Olive Garden unveiled its new menu items last February, it was the first significant change in the chain's offerings in its 32-year history.
It also provided good insight into today's Italian restaurant trends. Among Olive Garden's menu highlights are a Cucina Mia section, which allows customers to create their own pasta entrées for $9.99; small plates; lighter meal offerings weighing in at less than 575 calories; specialty entrées cooked on flattop grills; and antipasti and caprese salads.
Similarly, this past March, Carrabba's Italian Grill unveiled 15 entrées for $15 or less, evidence that value is still a factor in this segment and the restaurant industry as a whole.
Sales from the top Italian restaurant chains totaled more than $7.4 billion in 2013, a 0.8 percent increase from a year prior, according to Chicago-based Technomic's Top 500 report.
The Italian restaurant industry is set to continue expanding between now and 2018, growing at a projected average annual rate of 2.9 percent, including an increase of 3.4 percent in 2014, according to IBISWorld's report "Italian Restaurants in the U.S." Rising per capita disposable income will be the primary driver of this growth.
Quick-service Italian restaurants make up the majority of the segment at 40.2 percent, followed by full-service Italian restaurants at 30.4 percent and pizza restaurants at 24.4 percent; the remaining 5 percent is comprised of other Italian restaurant types, according to IBISWorld's report.
The Italian segment continues to face its share of challenges. For example, rising operating costs due to higher food prices kept Italian restaurant margins averaging between 3 percent and 5 percent, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.