Making ‘Mob Wives Chicago’ helps 5 local women get therapy — and revenge
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org June 7, 2012 5:48PM
Leah DeSimone and Christina Scoleri have a sit-down on “Mob Wives Chicago.”
‘MOB WIVES CHICAGO’ ★★1/2
7 to 8 p.m. Sundays on VH1. A private premiere party is scheduled for Sunday at Renee Fecarotta Russo’s store,
Eye Candy Optics, 2121 W. Division, and celebrities are expected on the red carpet beginning at 6 p.m.
Updated: July 11, 2012 6:07AM
‘Mob Wives Chicago” wastes no time diving straight into the drama. The premiere of VH1’s new reality show has two cast members basically cage fighting in front of the fireplace at the Wit’s Roof bar. Insults fly. So does a drink. Before you can say fuhgeddaboudit, Pia Rizza and Christina Scoleri are pulling on each other’s hair like a skydiver on a faulty parachute’s ripcord.
“I have a bad temper,” confessed a slightly sheepish Scoleri during a recent — and well-behaved — dinner at Paris Club in River North, where she, Rizza and fellow cast member Leah DeSimone sat down to talk about their upcoming foray into television.
“Mob Wives Chicago” debuts Sunday on the basic cable net that begat the original “Mob Wives,” a hit series centered on Staten Island women with ties to organized crime. The New York version just wrapped up an explosive second season in which mob wife Renee Graziano found out her now imprisoned husband wore a wire and helped send her father back to jail.
“With New York, a lot of their mob entanglements are kind of current,” said series’ creator Jennifer Graziano, Renee’s younger sister, during a phone interview. “A lot of Chicago is based on the sins of the father, so to speak, and their fathers are no longer in the picture. They have some deep-rooted effects there and some really, really good stories.”
“Mob Wives Chicago” will have to be content with Second City status when it comes to the Staten Island installment, whose raw story lines and colorful characters are hard to replicate — anywhere. But a somewhat watered-down version of the gold standard can still be entertaining, especially during the slower summer TV season.
The Chicago character with one of the most interesting story lines is Rizza, daughter of crooked Chicago cop Vince Rizza, a bookie and drug dealer. He turned government witness and testified against convicted killer Harry “The Hit” Aleman, who died in prison in 2010. Rizza’s dad disappeared into the witness protection program when she was 10 years old. What mortifies Rizza most about her father isn’t that he was a criminal; it’s that he sang like a canary.
“You stay in jail and you do your time,” Rizza says in the pilot, which is peppered with old family photos of the ladies and their dads. “I had to live with the stigma of having a father that was a rat my whole life.”
At Paris Club, Rizza said doing “Mob Wives Chicago” is her chance to “get revenge on my father. He should know the destruction he left behind.”
The first episode shows Rizza getting gussied up in a sexy outfit to pole dance at an unnamed venue. For three years she worked at VIP’s, billed as “Chicago’s premiere adult cabaret.” (Although that’s not where the footage was shot. She said VIP’s wouldn’t allow the cameras in; neither would her gym, the East Bank Club.)
The other mob wives give her lots of grief about working the pole.
“There was a recession,” said Rizza, single mother of a teenage girl. “It’s hard when you’re on your own and have a child. I’ve never gotten a dime of child support.”
Rizza and Scoleri are on friendly terms again after their smackdown in the pilot. The two go way back. Rizza is the one who recruited Scoleri to be on the show. She used to date Scoleri’s ex-husband’s brother.
The fact that Scoleri’s husband is an “ex” might come as a surprise to those who know the Downers Grove woman. The couple still lives together, and Scoleri says in the premiere that even their 9-year-old daughter believes her parents are still married.
“I don’t think I’ll let her watch it,” Scoleri said.
She agreed to do the show after she got the blessing of her father, Raymond Janek. An alleged fence for the mob, Janek was arrested more than 20 times while she was growing up. He went straight, she said, in 1987.
“I didn’t want all my business out there,” Scoleri said, adding that she’s glad she got over her cold feet because doing the show has been good for her. “I was in the house, going through a divorce, not getting out. I feel like it’s been therapy for me to talk things out.”
The downside is she feels the need to look her best even when she’s running errands. The show hasn’t aired yet but she’s already been recognized as a “mob wife” at a Taco Bell drive-thru.
Scoleri grew up on Taylor Street in Little Italy with DeSimone, a big personality with big hair and big earrings. DeSimone also looks poised to deliver the biggest laughs on the show.
“My friends always said, ‘Leah, you’re so funny — you should be on TV,’ ” she said during a rare break from checking her phone during dinner. “I’m LOTP: Life of the Party!”
She’s also a self-described hypochondriac and daddy’s girl. She still lives with her father, “Billy Wolf Pack” DeSimone, labeled as a “retired mob associate” in the show.
“When my dad wasn’t around I’d ask my grandmother, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ ” DeSimone says in the pilot. “My grandmother would say, ‘Well, your father’s in college.’ In Chicago, I’ll tell you, they don’t say jail. They say college.”
Rounding out the cast are Renee Fecarotta Russo, niece of “Big John” Fecarotta, who was a loan shark and hit man before being gunned down in 1986 by fellow mobster Frank Calabrese, and Nora Schweihs, daughter of Frank “The German” Schweihs, an alleged hit man for the Outfit.
Get used to the word “alleged.” You’ll hear it a lot in the show. Teasers to the 11-episode season also indicate there will be plenty of finger pointing, crying, yelling, hair pulling and bleeping of swear words.
Russo warns in the pilot not to call Schweihs’ dad a hit man or “she’ll slit your f---ing throat with a butter knife.”
If you’re not into this type of diva drama, “Mob Wives Chicago” won’t make you a convert to the genre. But if your guilty-pleasure list includes the New York original or the “Housewives” franchise, you might want to make some room on the DVR — especially if you live in Chicago.
A certain segment of the city already has made it clear they’re not fans of the show. The Italian-American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago has vowed to protest businesses that participate in the filming.
In an e-mail sent to me earlier this year, the group’s president, Louis H. Rago, wrote: “Chicago does not benefit from a production like this, nor does its female population, Italian ancestry or not. Giving celebrity to ignorance in the name of entertainment serves no purpose except to set a bad example. Shows like ‘Mob Wives’ and ‘Jersey Shore’ have become the scourge of our community.”
Those words don’t ruffle DeSimone, who said she’s proud of her Italian (and French) heritage.
“People can say whatever they want about me,” she said, glancing up from her phone. “No one’s going to bring me down but the man upstairs.”