Olive Garden joined the casual-dining burger battle on Monday after 31 years of touting its traditional Italian-influenced fare.

The 832-unit division of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. introduced nationwide a new Italiano Burger, a six-ounce patty for $9.99, as part of a broader menu overhaul.

“As part of an ongoing brand transformation, Olive Garden is expanding the choice, variety and value we offer on our menu,” the company said in an email.

The company has seen same-store sales at the Italian division slip amid pressures in the casual-dining segment and competition from brands such as Brinker International’s Chili’s Grill & Bar and DineEquity’s Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar — both of which have long offered burger platforms on their menus.

“Burgers are a popular lunch choice, and Olive Garden’s Italiano Burger is an Italian spin on an American classic,” spokeswoman Tara Gray said.

Olive Garden’s burger is topped with crisp prosciutto; mozzarella cheese; arugula; tomatoes marinated in fresh basil; garlic and Italian spices and served with a garlic aioli spread. It comes with parmesan-garlic fries and the Olive Garden’s traditional choice of unlimited soup or salad and breadsticks.

In addition to the burger, Olive Garden has expanded its “Lighter Italian Fare” choices with two new entrees. The menu section, which offers entrees of less than 575 calories each, now includes baked tilapia and shrimp in a white wine sauce with garlic broccoli. The other addition is grilled chicken breasts topped with rosemary and caramelized garlic cloves, served with garlic parmesan-mashed potatoes and fresh spinach.

Earlier this year, Olive Garden had said it was planning to introduce in December the new “Tastes of Italy” section, which features seven “small plates” for sharing and prices between $4 and $4.95. The items debuting this month include parmesan-roasted asparagus, pizza fritta Napoli, grilled chicken spiedini, crispy risotto bites, Tuscan white-bean hummus, tortelloni al forno and chicken meatballs.

For the Aug. 25-ended first quarter, Olive Garden reported sales of $918 million, about 0.4 percent lower than the prior year, and a same-store sales decline of 4 percent. Parent Darden said U.S. same-store sales at 704-unit Red Lobster fell 5.2 percent in the quarter while U.S. same-store sales at 438-unit LongHorn Steakhouse rose 3.2 percent.

When discussing earnings in September, Clarence Otis, Darden’s chairman and chief executive, cautioned that “sales volatility is amplified” because of the changes the company is making at its two largest brands, Olive Garden and Red Lobster.  

“We are working to improve affordability and to refine the guest experiences we provide so that they remain responsive to what guests want beyond affordability,” Otis said. “The objective is to regain same-restaurant traffic momentum.”

Darden’s disappointing first-quarter performance fueled activist investors’ calls for a reorganization of the nation’s largest casual-dining company, which also owns and operates such specialty brands as Bahama Breeze, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s, Seasons 52 and Yard House.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless