Iowa’s best burger award goes to Bambino’s in Ossian

In celebration of "May Beef Month," the Iowa Cattlemen's Association and Iowa Beef Industry Council are excited to announce the results of Iowa's Best Burger contest. Bambino's, in Ossian, has been awarded this year's Iowa's Best Burger honors.

At first glance, Bambino’s appears to be a hole-in-the-wall, nestled between Decorah and West Union. Customers having visited the quaint Ossian establishment, before or after it had ranked among Iowa’s Best Burgers, would concur — there is more than meets the eye.

Ron Lienau, of Fredericksburg, Iowa, purchased Bambino's in 1982. He and his girlfriend, Sue, decided to embark on this journey together, but “for a little while; not too long.” “Thirty-nine years later, and we’re still here,” says Sue. (Iowa Cattlemen's Association)

Ron Lienau, of Fredericksburg, Iowa, purchased the bar in 1982. He and his girlfriend, Sue, decided to embark on this journey together, but “for a little while; not too long.” One year later, Ron and Sue wed. Soon after, the couple started their family, having four boys in five and a half years.

"We were hoping to sell when our youngest was in kindergarten,” Sue recalls. “Thirty-nine years later, and we’re still here.”

The Lienau’s raised all four boys, while managing the bar and growing their business. Sue’s bar shift offered flexible hours, allowing her to attend the boys’ sporting events. As they grew older, all four boys worked for the family-owned business. Sue is proud of her boys, as they gained both cooking and social skills from their food service experience. She is now teaching her grandsons how to wash glasses and assist customers.

Bambino’s, which mimics Ron’s college nickname, was “truly a bar,” at first. However, Sue says “food became a bigger demand over time.” When the restaurant in town closed, it left townsfolk without a place to dine. Bambino’s, which did not feature a service kitchen at the time, found a way to open early and serve breakfast. Sue cooked at home, then brought her breakfast items to the bar to serve. Eventually, a new restaurant opened and Bambino’s stopped its breakfast service, but continued with its noontime meal. “Throughout it all, we have had a good noon meal,” Sue says. “My meals are always made from scratch.”

To date, Bambino’s has continued offering noon specials, including: hamburger steak on Monday, roast beef meal on Thursday, and chef’s pick on Friday.

“We do more food business than bar business,” Sue shares. “Beef, all around, is our biggest seller. It’s in our goulash, meatloaf, and soups.”

Aside from the daily lunch specials, “cheeseburgers and fries have been customers’ go-to.” Bambino’s keeps busy with burgers “all day and all night,” as farmers call in for a no hassle, utensil-free lunch, bowlers seek out a quick meal on their drive back from league night, and softball players round out a long evening.

Bambino’s burgers are highly sought after, and “you can get them anytime.” Bino (Ron) will serve burgers from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., attracting customers all throughout the day. Bambino’s burgers feature fresh, never frozen, 80/20 fine ground beef.

Ron and Sue patty the 7-ounce burgers as orders come in. The burgers are then cooked to 160 degrees, placed on a fresh KwikStar bun and customized.

Bambino’s most requested burger is the “veggie burger,” which features a juicy, all-beef burger patty topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion. Customers can customize their burgers anyway they’d like. Popular toppings include: bacon, egg, onion rings, and hash browns.

Overall, Bambino’s customers “just like beef,” Sue says. “They’re beef eaters.”

Sue enjoys unleashing her creative side, when building a burger. Not only does she create flavor, but fun. Regular customers and special guests may find a creative design made out of ketchup on their burgers during special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays. In her spare time, Sue continues to chip away at her children’s book series, which her customers helped inspire.

Regular customers and special guests may find a creative design made out of ketchup on their burgers during special occasions, such as birthdays and holidays. (Iowa Cattlemen's Association)

The Lienau’s enjoy their customers, and the hospitality shown by Sue and Ron make Bambino’s a special place to dine.

“Meeting new people and welcoming new visitors'' has been the highlight of their Best Burger Contest experience. Unfamiliar guests become part of the Bambino’s family well before they step foot outside.

The Lienaus know no stranger.

The flavor, creativity, and hospitality, which abounds at Bambino’s, have helped this small-town establishment secure Iowa’s 2021 Best Burger award. The designation as Iowa’s Best Burger comes after a two-phase competition, sponsored by the Iowa Beef Industry Council through the Iowa State Beef Checkoff and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

The first phase is based on votes from the public. For a month, burger lovers went online and voted for their favorite Iowa burger joint. At the end of the month, the 10 restaurants with the most votes were declared the “Top 10.” From there, three anonymous judges visited each of the restaurants, scoring the burger patties based on taste, doneness and presentation.

Bambino’s, located at 102 N. Lydia St. in Ossian is open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sunday. The establishment is 10 miles south of the Decorah Municipal Airport or six miles east of Calmar, off Highway 52.