Chicago-area students who have received cash for passing grades from their school may not need to spend it on pizza at Leona’s Restaurants.

That’s because the family-owned Italian food chain has recently launched its Achievers Program.

The program will offer vouchers for a free 10-inch pizza at any of its 12 Chicagoland locations to elementary and high school students displaying exceptional academic achievements.

These achievements could be good grades, perfect attendance, or extracurricular projects beneficial to their careers such as work force development initiatives.

The teacher of the school will nominate each student for the reward and the vouchers will be distributed during the report card period of that particular school.

The program started in September 2008, when Leona’s owners Leon and Sam Tioa – grandchildren of restaurant founder Leona Molinaro – were discussing ways to encourage and acknowledge scholastic success in area schools with Leona’s marketing director Ron Nordgren.

In a press statement Leon Tioa said, “As we celebrate our 59th anniversary [this year], it is our pleasure to invite students and their parents to celebrate their educational successes. We chose to reward students because we know that they are tomorrow’s leaders and reaching out to them was the best way to touch the heart of the communities we serve.”

In December 2008, the program has reached out to 650 schools, each of which is near a Leona’s location, including the Leona’s restaurant in Oak Park at 848 W. Madison. Approximately 1,500 students have received gift tickets courtesy of their teacher’s recommendations.

However, as has been the case with Manley Career Academy High School, which offers students cash in exchange for passing grades, will the Achiever’s Program face scrutiny for offering rewards for students who should excel in school anyway?

Nordgren says no and adds that thus far, the schools have been very complimentary of the program.

“We’ve had very positive feedback from the schools,” said Nordgren. “Many teachers want to offer rewards for academic accomplishments but are unable to because of budget concerns.”

Bill Gerstein, principal of Austin Ploytechnical Academy, says that although his school generally does not engage in rewarding its students for their academic success beyond the typical “honor roll” acknowledgment, he would be supportive of the program.

“My philosophy is: whatever works to provide that extra bit of motivation I would support,” said Gerstein, “as long as it was ethical moral and legal.”

Although the launch specifically has reached out to only schools with a 3-mile radius of a Leona’s restaurant, the program is open to any Chicago-area school that signs up for the program.

Schools interested in enrolling in the program can visit or contact Leona’s by e-mail