It’s 10pm and there’s a line outside the door and around the corner. People are patiently waiting for the chance to meet rap star Freddie Gibbs and Chicago streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods, who are hosting a midnight pop-up at an 84-year-old Italian deli and sandwich shop.
No, it’s not a MadLibs gone bad. It’s the true story of a family-run wholesaler whose fourth-generation owner turned the business around at a time when buying Romano cheese by the 65-pound wheel was no longer the norm.
Jim Graziano never intended to take over JP Graziano Grocery, the West Loop, Chicago business that his great-grandfather – a Sicilian immigrant – started in 1937. After all, although the store is certainly rich in history, it was far from young Graziano’s favorite. place to hang out when he was growing up.
“It was Saturday, and days off and summer vacation,” he recalled, “And instead of hanging out with my buddies, I was heading straight for Randolph Street to unload the trucks and put away the stock. “
It probably didn’t help that her father made a massive distinction between their relationships at home and at work.
“I remember having this big old fashioned metal door with two big padlocks, and he took the first lock off the door and then he put the key in the second lock and kind of let me looked at me and said, ‘You know, when I open this door, you’re not my son,'” Graziano recalled.
While it was certainly “a bit of a pill to swallow,” he says, he now understands what his father meant: that the emotional side of their relationship should be put aside at work; this business, ultimately, is a business.
Despite his apprehensions, however, Graziano realized midway through his second year of college, just after his uncle’s retirement, that the buck couldn’t end with him.
“It was kind of like a magnetic attraction,” he says. “Like: this is where I’m supposed to be in my life; that’s what I want to do. I don’t want this to end on me.
However, once on board, Graziano realized the business was in trouble: a wholesaler who simply couldn’t keep up with the big guys, whose walk-in customers no longer resembled the large extended families who used to arrive in groups of 10 or 12 to divide pasta and tomatoes per crate or whole wheels of cheese that the Grazianos would divide with cheese wire. On the contrary, as the neighborhood began to gentrify, Graziano recalls “really cool WASPs” who came to buy Italian staples in more…reasonable quantities.
“I remember someone came to Uncle Paul, who was my grandfather’s brother, who was second generation there, for a quarter pound of cheese,” he says. “The look on his face…like…’What about tomorrow? What kind of cheese are you going to use tomorrow? »
While young Graziano saw the benefit of meeting these consumers’ cheese needs a quarter pound at a time, he found it hard to change his mind, at least at first. But these new arrivals gave Graziano another key to unlocking the store’s true potential: the gaze of an outsider witnessing its old-fashioned glory in Chicago for the first time, all weather-worn wooden floors, the bulging shelves of canned fish, caponata and giardiniera, the barrels full of loose spices, and in the middle of it all, a forklift transporting produce through the space.
“People just stood there watching this symphony of work unfold around them,” says Graziano. “I looked at my dad and said, ‘If we could just get people here, they’d fall in love with the store. It’s an amazing store, as real as it gets.
The problem was, of course, how to get people into the doors – and the solution, ultimately, was the sandwiches.
Today, Graziano sells no less than a dozen different subs, ranging from porchetta on ciabatta to muffuletta on sesame rolls: the must-have classics of any Italian sub-store, made with high quality ingredients from local suppliers. It’s a radical departure from wholesale that made the boutique what it is, but Graziano remains modest about the instinct that turned into a real turning point.
“I just felt like… maybe it could be a revenue stream,” he says. “Like maybe it could be cool and different and give us some attention.”
And give them the attention he did. Shortly after throwing sandwiches at the store, Graziano was invited to ComplexCon — an event where, he notes, he felt like a fish out of water.
“Everybody around me was like a cool fashion brand and all these amazing shoes, and this guy tagging an El Camino car in the middle of a showroom, and I’m like…what the hell? what am I doing here? I’m an 85-year-old Italian grocery store!” he recalls.
But over the weekend, he realized that what people craved was what he already had in spades: authenticity. ” You do not have to try to sell that – people are drawn to that,” he says.
The weekend also cemented her friendship with Chicago streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods. Which brings us to the manna of midnight t-shirts.
The event, Graziano recalls, went almost seamlessly.
“He just texted me on a whim, because he’s that kind of guy,” he says. “He was like, ‘My homie Freddie [Gibbs] is performing at Lollapalooza, and I have another guy Anwar [Carrots] in California, and they work together a lot, and they like shirt hangouts or whatever at little cafes or places you don’t really expect, and you’d be perfect for that.
They teamed up for a midnight pop-up, selling limited-edition T-shirts designed by Joe Freshgoods and designer LA Carrots, not to mention Italian subs, which Graziano started giving away for free when the merchandise sold out. is exhausted almost immediately. The event certainly knocked people through the door, but for Graziano, the real appeal of JP Graziano remains his family appeal, with Graziano and his older sister DeAna now at the helm.
“She started a few weeks after my dad died, ‘just to help out for a few weeks,’ I remember she told me,” Graziano says. “And now fast forward those 13 years later, and the place doesn’t work without her, to be very honest with you.”
And while things have certainly changed under their leadership, for Graziano, “really, what works in our store now is everything that I’ve never changed and never touched.”
“And not just the physical things,” he adds, “but – more importantly – the way we conduct our business and how we treat our customers.”
Several generations of families, he says, still return with their children: for the store’s now famous bottles of giardiniera, for the sandwiches that Graziano describes as “top notch.”
“They are how I support our family,” he says. “But what we’re selling is that service and that authentic, real, real piece of Chicago. I think that’s why people come back.
Jim Graziano is in the business of old Chicago, so he gave InsideHook an exclusive look at what his ideal day of dining across town would look like.
“I want to say, [Moon] is a good sandwich shop, but their breakfast sandwiches are the best for me. And that’s going to give you a really good idea of the city, because Madison and Western – you’re not going to confuse it with being on Michigan Avenue.
“A bit more touristy place, but one that I think would still be on my list, is Lou Mitchell. This egg sandwich is probably world famous by this point, and I remember standing in line as a kid and eating the little donuts they handed you and the orange slices on the table. I think these two for the start of the day, you absolutely can’t miss them.
“Our family has done business with Mario’s Italian Lemonade – now in its third generation of owners. Skippy’s dad has done business with my great-grandfather since they first opened. In addition to selling Italian lemonade, they also sell ceci and fave, which look like fried salted chickpeas and beans, and we eat them as snacks and I take my kids there in the summer, because it’s, like, the Chicago as authentic as possible.
“A lot of people in Chicago always feel like they need to rank sandwiches, which makes me very uncomfortable in general, to be honest, because first of all, food is so subjective. The best thing in the world can be absolute shit for the next person. But more importantly, our families have a very long history, and I never want to be, like, not going to Bari or filling in the blanks – come see me. Like Ralph is right there supporting his family like me.
“Right next to them is D’Amato Bakery, which is absolutely a monster of a slice of pizza. It’s a third-generation, family-run establishment. They have one of the only original charcoal ovens still used for wholesale. And that’s where I get my bread for our sandwiches, and for me, that’s one of the best bakeries in town, if not the best. There’s just a ton of authenticity and history that emerges from this place.”
“For dinner, if you want to go old fashioned, we’ll stay on Grand Avenue, and we can go to La Scarola, which has been around for probably 35, 40 years at this point. They were good customers back then when we were wholesale, Armando, who was the chef then and now is the owner, he’s one of the biggest characters in Chicago that you will ever meet. Old fashioned Italian red sauce joint.
“I don’t know if we’ll have a drink, but we could have some more food. There’s a place called white palace – a place open 24 hours a day. It’s… I guess they’d call it South Loop these days. It’s a 24-hour joint, and it really is Chicago. An old fashioned place. I’ve always thought that at night, the walk-in window, the neon light…it’s attractive, it’s cool. For me, especially at night, it’s kind of what bleeds Chicago.
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