Mille’s Italian Sausage: fair vendor since ’32

This is the time of year when Amatore “Matt” Mille of Philadelphia heads home and fires up the charcoal grill.

Home is Milwaukee, Matt makes Italian sausages, and his cooking is no little backyard barbecue, although this is a family reunion.

Sister Toni comes from New Jersey; brothers Mike and Mark are in Milwaukee. Their children and grandchildren – the youngest are 5-month-old twins from Chicago – arrive from other directions.

A Mille’s Italian Sausage stand has been at the Wisconsin State Fair since 1932, longer than any other food vendor. It has involved five generations of the Mille family, and it is difficult to find this particular sausage during other times of the year.

“We work so hard for those 11 days – 12 to 15 hours a day,” says Matt, who is 63. “It’s dirty work, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Grandparents Amatore and Antonette Mille opened one of Milwaukee’s first pizza places in 1947, at 82nd and Greenfield, across from the fairgrounds. As their State Fair sausage stand grew in popularity, so did the amount of ash and smoke from the grill, which caused competing vendors to complain.

That prompted Mike Mille Sr., Matt’s dad, to create a vertical grill, where the sausages would cook on long spits that were alongside – not above – the coals. The juices no longer dripped into the fire, the smoke cleared, and the sausages still are prepared this way, dozens browning at one time.

The sausage is Antonette Mille’s recipe, produced for more than 50 years through Klement’s Sausage Co., only for the fair, Summerfest and a couple of Milwaukee car races.

During the State Fair, several tons of the sausage will be served in Italian rolls from Peter Sciortino’s Bakery, a longtime fixture on Milwaukee’s Brady Street.

“Sharp, or sweet?” is what the family of servers will ask, a reference to two types of peppers that can be added. It is not unusual to have 16 bushels, which are freshly pan-fried, when the workday begins at 6 a.m.

The menu is not complicated: sausage sandwiches, beverages and cannoli (also from Sciortino’s). That’s it.

“From the earliest years, grandma and grandpa always stayed focused on selling the best possible Italian sausage sandwich,” Matt writes, in his 2006 “Eleven Days in August: A Chronicle of Summers” (Trafford Publishing, $19.95).

“They had many opportunities to make more money by adding other high-margin products or by cutting corners on quality here or there, but they never went down those paths.”

The sausage recipe was a longtime experiment that eventually was perfected and has long been left alone. Fennel is a part of what makes it unique, and the family is considering commercial sales that would be in addition to occasional events.

Matt tried it long ago, carting a sausage booth to festivals and fairs as far away as Calgary. The money was all right, he says, but the satisfaction just wasn’t the same.

“It’s a homecoming,” Matt says, about returning to the city that he left about 30 years ago. “It’s about going back to family and a part of myself.”

He describes this working vacation in Milwaukee as “a dramatic change” from the rest of his life, which involves business suits and corporate worlds, to sell and market information technology in New York City.

His father died in 2000, a few weeks after the State Fair. That could have ended this family affair, but it hasn’t.

Food fads – on a stick or on atop a tray – come and go, but Mille’s endures without a need for change.

“There are more food providers,” Matt observes, “but there is still an emphasis on quality and uniqueness of products” at the State Fair.

The event “doesn’t really change much from year to year, and that’s a good thing.”

Matt will sell and sign copies of “Eleven Days in August” at the Mille’s Italian Sausage booth. His book also is available through www.trafford.com.

The memoir is about family transitions and relationships as well as Italian sausages.

The 2007 Wisconsin State Fair ends Aug. 12 at Wisconsin State Fair Park, 640 S. 84th St., West Allis. For more: www.wistatefair.com, 800-884-FAIR.

What’s odd and interesting this year? Several things, and not all have to do with the guys who hawk mops and carpet cleaners. For example:

The Lumberjills – women who throw axes, carve with chainsaws and roll logs – perform three or four times daily.

Agility, speed and discipline are tested during Dog Fair demos on Aug. 6.

The best “moo” wins $1,000 on Aug. 11. For more about Moo-La-Palooza, see www.cousinssubs.com/moo.

The average person at the fair is 37 years old and will visit the event twice, averaging six hours per trip.

This year’s entertainment headliners are Lupillo Rivera with Ana Barbara, Aug. 4; George Jones with Leroy Van Dyke, T.G. Sheppard and Bobby Bare, Aug. 5; MercyMe with Tree63, Aug. 6; Lonestar with John Anderson and Jake Owen, Aug. 7; Corbin Bleu and Drake Bell with Jordan Pruitt, Aug. 8; Kool and the Gang with Ruben Studdard, Aug. 9; The Bodeans with The Gufs, Aug. 10; Switchfoot with Emerson Hart, Aug. 11; and Kids From Wisconsin, Aug. 12.