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Irene Sics, former owner of landmark Evanston coffeehouse Kafein, dies at 45

Irene Dallianis Sics owner Kafecafe Evanstlongtime hangout for Northwestern University students. She stayed business 20 years despite encroachment coffee chains

Irene Dallianis Sics, owner of Kafein cafe in Evanston, a longtime hangout for Northwestern University students. She stayed in business 20 years, despite the encroachment of coffee chains, thanks to her warm welcome, funny menu and late hours. | Family provided photo

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Updated: June 5, 2013 6:13AM

Jeremy Piven dropped in.

John Cusack read a script there. Once, he brought Neve Campbell.

Meredith Viera came with her kids.

But mostly, Evanston’s Kafein cafe was a refuge for less well-known coffee lovers. As one fan put it, it was a place for insomniacs and students, most of them from Northwestern University and Evanston Township High School. There, they could down coffee drinks with all-nighter names, such as “Devil’s Brew” and “Dumb Ass” (four shots); “Double Dumb Ass” (six shots); “Lard Ass” (with half-and-half), and the “Smart Ass” (with soymilk). The post-midnight closing time didn’t hurt.

For 21 years, Irene Sics’ cafe prospered. She fended off competition from national coffee conglomerates with her potent perks; sassy menus, which she wrote; fully-stocked bookcases, and comfy couches.

Only ovarian cancer stopped her. She died April 25 at 45.

She got the idea for Kafein in the late 1980s. While studying at the film school of the University of Southern California, she noticed coffeehouses were big on the West Coast.

After graduating from USC in 1989, she landed what appeared to be a dream job at the Walt Disney Company. A lifelong fan of the animation progenitor, she won a state award for an essay on Disney when she was a high school student at Niles West. She decorated the walls of her bedroom with Mickey Mouse cartoon cells. But the work at Disney — on movie previews — was less than exciting. And she didn’t like the unappetizing haze of smog that hung over Los Angeles.

In 1992, she returned to the Midwest. She opened the cafe in about a month’s time, using her credit cards, said her mother, Jean Demas. She had partners at the beginning but later bought them out, relatives said.

She grew up as Irene Dallianis in Lincolnwood. In 1985, as a junior at Niles West, she began studying film, radio and TV through Northwestern’s “Cherub” program, the National High School Institute. Her final project was impressive, and something no Cherub had tried before, her mother said. “She created a cartoon. She drew every cell.”

She learned computer programming to design Kafein’s menu, loaded with tasty goodies (“Best Shakes in the Universe, One Whole Pound Super Premium Ice Cream”) and sarcasm-laced jokes (“Ordering While on Phone” cost $4.95). The menu also threatened to charge $2.95 to anyone who ordered using the words “Tall,” “Grande” or “Venti.”

For coffeehouse decor, she commissioned quirky frescoes of masterpieces. In Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell, the goddess of love has a cup of joe. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depicts God reaching out to touch Adam’s finger. In Kafein’s version, God handed Adam a cup of coffee. And, “the Mona Lisa is smiling because she’s drinking an espresso,” Jean Demas said.

Kafein became a destination. Couples met there and later married. The financial giant Deloitte invited students there for recruitment. “They’d treat them to Kafein treats, tell them about their company,” Jean Demas said.

When Johnny Depp was in town, he asked if Kafein could be closed so he could hang out there in peace. Mrs. Sics said no. She didn’t want to lose business or her regular customers, said her brother, Tom Dallianis.

She expanded the menu to include vegetarian items. Kafein was also a smoke-free pioneer.

Though she was in a jitter-inducing industry, Mrs. Sics exuded calm. She limited herself to one or two cups of coffee a day.

“It was next to impossible to find a picture where she was not smiling,” said her husband, John Sics.

They met after she placed a Matches ad in the Reader, her mother said. She received 96 responses, but John Sics stood out. They wed in 2002 and settled in Glenview in a home she always decorated with fresh flowers. She loved roses and orchids, especially if they were pink.

Mrs. Sics had a soft spot for animals. She crafted donation cans with pictures of animals and dropped them off at businesses in Glenview and Evanston to collect spare change for animal shelters.

She had her beloved golden retriever, Chocolate, certified as a therapy dog and brought him to a VA hospital to comfort patients.

During vacations, she volunteered at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, where she worked with dolphins, and she learned sign language to help with primate research at the University of Washington in Seattle, her family said.

She loved Epcot Center, roller-coaster rides and “Star Wars.” A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a 9-year-old Irene grew her hair long so she could wind it into Princess Leia’s headphonian buns for Halloween.

Diagnosed in September, she soon knew she wouldn’t be able to keep Kafein going. She sold the business in February.

In his eulogy, her brother recalled how she loved to take cruises.

“He envisioned she was on a celestial cruise, and we’d be joining her someday,” her mother said.

Services have been held.

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