Joseph Zucchero opened Mr. Beef — known for its Italian beef sandwiches and most recently the model for the TV show “The Bear” — in the River North neighborhood in 1979, and for more than four decades was a staple at the restaurant, familiar to patrons ranging from sewer workers and executive recruiters to comedian Jay Leno.
“He was Chicago personified. He was a no-BS, tell-it-like-it-is guy, and I think that’s what the city truly is,” said former Chicago radio personality Erich “Mancow” Muller, who has patronized and promoted Mr. Beef since arriving in Chicago in 1994.
Zucchero, 69, died March 1 at Rush University Medical Center after being admitted to the hospital on Feb. 24, said his son, Christopher, the restaurant’s co-owner. A longtime Park Ridge resident, Zucchero had been battling lymphoma for many years, and hospital officials attributed the cause of death to sepsis, his son said.
Born in Chicago, Zucchero grew up in Norwood Park and attended Taft High School. As a young man he worked for a carpet company and in the meat department at a North Side Dominick’s grocery.
At 25, with his own savings and some help from his father-in-law, Zucchero decided to open an Italian beef restaurant, his son said. It was 1979 and he chose a location at 666 N. Orleans St. in River North, which was not yet a gentrified neighborhood.
Zucchero was a constant presence in the restaurant, and so too, almost from the beginning, was Leno, who often would stop for a sandwich after performing at a North Side comedy club.
“Oprah (Winfrey’s) got her restaurant,” Leno told late-night host and future rival David Letterman in May 1989, while Letterman originated his program from Chicago for a week. “I got Mr. Beef over on Orleans.”
Leno told the Tribune in 1989 that Mr. Beef is “a straightforward place, one of those places that’s uniquely Chicago.”
“Jay gave us a backing at a time when Jay was becoming famous too, and Jay didn’t have to do that,” Christopher Zucchero said. “All of these relationships that we had were very organic. Jay just liked my dad, and my dad liked Jay.”
At the restaurant, Zucchero “thrived,” his son said, on the relationships he had with his customers and employees.
“He loved being there,” his son said. “He loved the way people came there and connected to him. There were these moments of down time after (meal) rushes, a lot of people looked forward to talking to him, and I think he knew that and he was always present. It was always genuine and he very much liked doing that.”
Other celebrity diners included actor William Shatner and the rock band Van Halen, both brought to the restaurant by Muller.
In 2008, Zucchero opened a second restaurant, Natalino’s, on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village. It closed in 2012.
In recent months, the restaurant saw a boom in business owing to the FX series “The Bear,” about a struggling Chicago beef sandwich and its harried kitchen brigade. The TV show’s creator, Christopher Storer, grew up with Christopher Zucchero, and the interiors of the restaurant on the show mimic those of Mr. Beef.
“I worked for him at Natalino’s and it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had in hospitality because of Joe,” said “The Bear” producer and Park Ridge native Courtney Storer, who is Christopher Storer’s sister. “He was an incredible storyteller who would have an entire room captivated for an entire 20 minutes because everyone loved his animation and storytelling,”
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
“He really went to bat for all of his staff. It was like he was the pops or the dad, and we were all like his family, which made for a really fun environment” Storer said.
Zucchero told The New York Times in August that the show’s popularity had boosted demand for Mr. Beef’s Italian sandwiches from 250 to 300 each day to 800 per day.
Zucchero was an avid collector of rare movie posters — he frequented movie poster conventions — as well as lobby cards, his son said. He also collected antique cars and bobbleheads.
In addition to his son, Zucchero is survived by his wife of 45 years, Camille; a daughter, Lauren; a brother, Dominic; and a sister, Claudine Grippo.
A visitation will take place from 9 until 11:30 a.m. on Saturday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Highway in Park Ridge. A funeral service will take place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
To purchase a death notice, visit https://placeanad.chicagotribune.com/death-notices/. To suggest a staff-written obituary on a person of local interest, email email@example.com