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Saying thanks -- with steaks

John Tinucci knows all about serving up fine food. The restaurateur is in the family business of feeding southeast metro diners at 51-year-old Tinucci's restaurant in Newport.

Earlier this month, he did so in a setting vastly different from the small deli or dark, classic dining room, though. Tinucci helped serve more than 1,000 sirloin steaks to Minnesota National Guard members in the Middle East as part of a five-year-old program put on by a group of his colleagues in the St. Paul restaurant business.

"It was the trip of a lifetime," Tinucci said of his 10-day trip to Kuwait, where he served Minnesota guard members at Camp Buehring.

The trip was part of the Serving Our Troops project. Serving Our Troops has been serving steaks provided by Mancini's Char House in St. Paul, bringing a taste of the Twin Cities to Minnesota National Guard members stationed on bases across the United States, Kosovo and Iraq since 2004.

The volunteer group, which relies on corporate and private donations -- and has now served more than 50,000 steak dinners over seven trips -- was honored last month with the Chief of the National Guard Bureau Civilian Award for Excellence in recognition of its efforts to support active duty soldiers and their families.

Tinucci, 56, got involved with his fellow restaurateurs at the outset, helping serve family members of those in the guard at a giant St. Paul dinner as troops in Kosovo got the same gourmet treatment. The Dec. 7 to 17 trip was Tinucci's first overseas with the group. The holiday season marks the busiest time at his family's Newport and Woodbury restaurants, he said, but a trip to Kuwait -- and a chance to honor Minnesota troops -- was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"It was very gratifying, satisfying," Tinucci said. "It was pretty neat to see what these people sacrifice."

Delta Airlines provided free airfare for the 20 individuals who left Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a grueling trip that took them through Atlanta, Dubai and finally Kuwait City.

Once in the Persian Gulf, half the outfit stayed at a base near the Kuwait-Iraq border, and another group traveled in a convoy to Basra, Iraq, to serve another group of Minnesota guard members.

Honoring the troops -- and offering them a dinner that's a step up from military meals -- is an experience Tinucci said he cherishes.

But he welcomes the day their efforts aren't needed.

"Iraq is slowing down, thank goodness," he said. "Hopefully they'll put us out of business over there."