It was 1979 when former Ponderosa Steak House manager Sam Pellegrino opened his family’s Harborside Restaurant and Italian Deli in Olympia.

In time, the restaurant progressed into the casually upscale Pellegrino’s Italian Gardens, which is now commonly considered, “The Best Little Italian Restaurant in town.” And the deli grew into a wildly popular catering business, now known as one of the top-booked in Thurston County, garnering 60 percent of the family’s business and serving more than 100,000 event guests each year.

So, after more than three decades of success on all sides in 2012, what was Pellegrino’s next step?

Opening his own Pellegrino Events Center on Little Rock Road in Tumwater first thing this year.

“It’s been going very well,” Pellegrino said, while ducking out of the kitchen for a moment after a hectic Tuesday morning breakfast event. “We’re very accessible to large, catered events. And, of course, it’s wedding season, so we’re very busy.”

Busy indeed: Since its January 1 opening, the Events Center has hosted not only with weddings, but also graduation, class reunion, and 50th birthday and wedding anniversary events, and that’s just for starters. Memorials, too, with one of the county’s largest cemeteries down the road, have been frequent bookings for the sizable, transformable multi-use building.

With its bright, bustling kitchen, the Event Center has the possibilities of providing scenarios ranging from an elegant ballroom that seats 250 guests to three smaller, Italian-style meeting or event spaces: the “Palermo,” “Naples” and “Venice” rooms. Across the corridor, the Tuscan Terrace, with its full-service bar, overlooks a pretty patio; alone, the terrace seats 50 to 60, with the patio adding space for 40 more in the summertime.

South Sound Manor manager James DeGroff is one who’s been extremely pleased with Pellegrino’s services, both the catering side and with bookings at the new Events Center.

“Everything they’ve done has always been very high quality, and you know the food is going to be good and the clientele will be well-served,” he said. “It’s very professional service; you never have to worry about anything.”

That the Event Center even happened was a quirk on its own, and a boon in the midst of the recession. It was 2010, and Pellegrino had to let go of his own lease on the building due to cutbacks in government catering bookings and a landlord who refused to negotiate on the rent. Fast-forward two years, after another restaurant operator failed there and the building changed hands to a family acquaintance. Knowing the Pellegrinos already owned a strong business, he approached Sam with what he thought was a deal he wouldn’t refuse.

Pellegrino thought otherwise.

“The building owner said, ‘Sam and Pam, do I have a deal for you!’ But my first thought was, not just ‘No,’ but ‘Hell, no!'” he recounted, with a laugh.

However, after reviewing the actual deal and what would need to be done to refurbish the much-neglected space, the Pellegrinos decided to sign. The builder not only cut the original rent in half, but also invested a subsequent amount of time and money toward fixing the Event Center to meet the family’s vision.

Now, after nine months in business, Pellegrino is pleased with the progress of all arms of his family’s ventures into the restaurant, catering and event realms.

“We’re doing our best knock-up job for all of our clients, giving them a little more than expected,” he said. “If you do that, people will always go out and tell others about it. That’s how we’ve managed to stay for 30 years in this business.”