We had not really had any major innovation on our menu in a very long time, so from a marketing perspective, we were really excited,” says Edithann Ramey, director of marketing for Maggiano’s Little Italy , a 42-unit Dallas-based chain owned by Brinker International  Inc.
The innovation to which Ramey refers is the company’s rollout last May of four dishes under a new menu heading of “Little Italy Favorites.” One of those dishes, Braised Beef Cannelloni, is the winner of the 2008 “ Single Product Rollout” MenuMasters Award.
Inspired by slow-cooked family meals in traditional Italian-American neighborhoods, the dish starts with a whole chuck roast that’s slowly braised with carrots, onions, celery, garlic, bay leaf and thyme in veal stock with tomatoes. When it’s fork-tender, the beef is shredded and mixed with Asiago and Parmesan cheeses and rolled in pasta sheets.
When an order comes in, the chef places the cannelloni in a single-serving gratin dish—three pieces for a lunch order; four for dinner—and tops the pasta with sauce, additional chunks of braised beef, fresh herb breadcrumbs, and Parmesan and Romano cheeses. The sauce for the dish is made from the braising liquid, cream and “a touch” of balsamic vinegar to balance the flavors and richness. The cannelloni is baked about eight minutes in the oven and lightly browned under the broiler.
It wasn’t just the marketing department that was excited. Customers responded very favorably, Ramey says.
“We have our guests talk to us on a daily basis,” she says. “They’ll call in and participate in a survey, and we’ve seen some of our top key measures go up.
“We’ve gotten a lot of credit for being innovative, which we hadn’t for a very long time. I think people loved us and appreciated all the classic recipes.”
“Right on the mark”
“It is delicious,” Tom Miner, a principal with Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based restaurant industry consulting and marketing firm, says about the Braised Beef Cannelloni. “It merits the award. It’s a classic Italian dish that is not often seen. Usually, you see cannelloni made with ground beef, which is more downscale.
ITEM: Braised Beef CannelloniROLLOUT: May 2007COMPANY: Maggiano’s Little Italy, a division of Brinker International Inc. HEADQUARTERS: DallasUNITS: 42DESCRIPTION: pasta stuffed with braised beef, Asiago and Parmesan cheesesWEIGHT/HEIGHT: each cannelloni is 1-inch high and weighs 3 ounces; dinner portion is four cannelloni; lunch portion, three cannelloniPRICE: $17.95-$18.50 at dinner, depending on locationDISH DEVELOPERS: Keith Brunell, senior director of culinary, and Maggiano’s Little Italy Culinary Team
“I think that it’s important for Maggiano’s to come out with a new line of items to sort of update the classics that they have on the menu,” he continues. “Their restaurants have a huge following, and it’s good for them to refresh their item list once in a while, just in general. The strategy of presenting a limited-time offer or a new category of specialty items is very sound. The positioning of it as Little Italy Favorites is right on the mark with their initial strategy of being classic-Italian-food restaurants. They’re staying within their strategy and refreshing their food, and an example of the success of it is the Braised Beef Cannelloni.”
Back to the drawing board
Prior to a systemwide rollout, Maggiano’s tested the dish internally and at four locations, taking about nine months in all, and continued tweaking the recipe.
“When you’re using Parmesan and Romano cheeses, the dish has a tendency to taste a little salty,” says Keith Brunell, senior director of culinary, “so we had to work on flavor profiles two or three times before we really nailed it down. We ended up cutting back on cheese and the total salt content of the dish.”
In addition, Brunell says, the baking and serving process changed twice. To give the finished dish more eye appeal, “so it doesn’t just look like three sheets of pasta rolled up,” the decision was made to top the cannelloni with additional chunks of braised beef. Texture also played a part.
“We knew that these were very soft textures,” Brunell says, “so we used fresh herb breadcrumbs and Parmesan and Romano cheeses to create that crunchy texture on top of the beef in the final baking phase.”
What also happens, Brunell says, is that the meat stays really moist but the top of the beef gets just a bit crisp on the end, similar “to how carnitas get just that little crunch of caramelized meat texture on the end.”
Brunell says Maggiano’s has sold about 750,000 orders of the Braised Beef Cannelloni to date. The culinary team was pleased, if a bit surprised, that the dish maintained its strong sales even during the warmer summer months. The cannelloni are also a popular banquet item for large parties at Maggiano’s, as they are served by the piece and easy to share.
Currently, Maggiano’s outsources preparation of the cannelloni for consistency and distribution; each restaurant then finishes the dish in house by preparing the topping, the sauce and the fresh herb breadcrumbs and then baking and broiling the dish.
“It’s just truly a very indulgent item,” Brunell says. “You have the richness of the meat and cheese filling. You have the nice, slightly acidic sauce with cream that it’s baked in, and it’s topped with the beef with breadcrumbs and cheese that give it a little bit of a crunchy texture.”
Maggiano’s plans to expand its “Little Italy Favorites” line, which currently includes Baked Ziti & Sausage, Chicken Cacciatore and Lobster Ravioli. Dishes in test now include: shrimp risotto, braised beef braciole, and chicken Français with lemon, arugula and tomatoes.