Founder of Chicago sub sandwich standout Bari Foods dead at 96
By MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter May 21, 2014 6:20PM
Joseph N. Pedota | Provided photo
Updated: June 24, 2014 7:43AM
La bella lingua never sounded so delicious.
Joseph Pedota founded Bari Foods, the Grand Avenue grocery named for his Italian hometown, where all those ingredients get put together to craft what’s been acclaimed as one of the finest sub sandwiches in Chicago.
The recipes he carried in his head from Italy to America brought the store success. He sold his homemade pickled eggplant, giardiniera in three degrees of heat (mild, medium and super hot), marinated mushrooms and skinny Barese sausages, flavored with parsley and peppers.
Every day at lunchtime, the street suddenly fills around Bari, 1120 W. Grand, as foodies and Streets and San workers alike stop for a sandwich. Police officers, too, who seem not to notice the parking violations so everyone can get in, get their subs and go.
There’s nowhere at Bari to sit down, so people are out quickly, often attacking their sandwiches as they drive off.
Mr. Pedota, who saw the business he started in 1973 get passed on to the next generation, his sons Frank and Ralph, died Friday at his home in Westchester. He was 96.
“He was driving until two years ago,’’ said Frank Pedota. “He was one of those guys who never stopped moving.”
Mr. Pedota was born in Bitritto, outside Bari, on the upper “heel” of the boot-shaped map of Italy.
After losing his father at 13, he worked long hours to support his mother, growing olives and almonds on the family farm. When he was about 21, Italy entered World War II. Drafted into the Italian army, he served as a motorcycle messenger in North Africa. Captured by the British, he was held in Egypt, India and Australia. The POW camp in India was a harsh experience, with some Italians dying of malnutrition, Frank Pedota said. But in Australia, Mr. Pedota and many other Italian POWs worked on farms. He was sent to a sheep farm, where he became fond of the owners, who fed and treated him well.
When he returned to Italy after the war, “He couldn’t believe how bad it was,” his son said. “There were bomb craters all over.”
He told his mother, Maria, he was going to Chicago, where a community from Bitritto had taken root. “He told her he could make a better living, and he could also send her back money,” his son said.
He arrived in 1948 and moved to Grand and Ogden. He met a young seamstress from Bitritto named Grace Scalera, and they fell in love. They married at Santa Maria Addolorata Church, 528 N. May.
Mr. Pedota worked loading trucks and at a Broadway Avenue pizzeria owned by his father-in-law. He learned how to be a butcher when he worked for a pair of Greek brothers on Randolph Street.
Opening his own store was a proud moment.
“That was how he wanted to make the American dream come true,” his son said.
His wife worked as the cashier.
Mr. Pedota worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. He built the business with meats, cheeses and staples favored by the Italian housewives in the neighborhood. He offered Olio Beato olive oil from the Puglia region and Paesano olive oil from Sicily. When Mexican immigrants arrived, he started offering Hispanic foodstuffs, too.
He helped other immigrants from Bitritto get their start, offering them a place to stay and help finding a job.
Today, the store he founded draws a cross-section of foodies, hipsters and city and office workers.
“It’s Chicago,” said Frank Pedota. “You get everybody. You get police officers, Streets and San, firemen, people from all over.”
“Everybody feels welcome,” said Dennis Foley, author of “The Streets and San Man’s Guide to Chicago Eats.”
Chef Suzy Crofton is a fan of Bari, which she calls “a mainstay in Chicago. I’m fortunate enough to live right near there and have been enjoying their amazing subs for over 15 years. There’s subs, and then there’s Bari subs.”
Mr. Pedota always liked to have his knives bayonet-sharp, preferably honed by Maestranzi cutlery. In what free time he had, he enjoyed playing cards.
He is also survived by another son, Joseph, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.