Joseph Zucker opened Mr. Beef — known for its Italian beef sandwiches and more recently as a model for the TV show “The Bear” — opened in the River North area in 1979 and for more than four decades has been a staple at the restaurant, known to patrons ranging from sewers and recruiters to comedians Jay Leno.
“He was the epitome of Chicago. He was a man who wasn’t a bass, and I think that’s what the city really is,” said former Chicago radio host Erich “Munkow” Mueller, who has championed and promoted Mr. Beef since his arrival. in Chicago in 1994.
Zuckera, 69, died March 1 at Rush University Medical Center after being hospitalized on Feb. 24, said his son Christopher, who co-owns the restaurant. A longtime Park Ridge resident, Zuckerberg had battled lymphoma for years, and hospital officials ruled the cause of death to be sepsis, according to his son.
Born in Chicago, Zukera 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 North Side Dominick’s Grocery.
At age 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 regional area.
Zucchero was a constant presence at the restaurant, and so, almost from the beginning, was Leno, who often stopped by for a sandwich after a performance at a North Side comedy club.
“Oprah (Winfrey) got her restaurant,” Leno told late-night host and future rival David Letterman in May 1989, while Letterman was hosting his program from Chicago for a week. “I brought Mr. Beef to Orleans.”
Leno told the Tribune in 1989 that Mr. Beef was “a simple place, one of those places that belongs in Chicago.”
“Jay supported us at a time when Jay was also becoming famous, and Jay didn’t have to,” Christopher Zuckera said. “All these relationships we had were very organic. Jay just liked my dad and my dad liked Jay.”
At the restaurant, Zuccero “thrived,” his son said, because of his relationships with customers and employees.
“He loved being there,” his son said. “He loved how people came there and connected with him. There were those moments of downtime after the (food) rush, many people looked forward to talking to him and I think he knew that and was always there. It was always honest and he really enjoyed doing it.”
Other celebrity diners included actor William Shatner and rock band Van Halen, both of whom were brought to the restaurant by Mueller.
In 2008, Zucchero opened a second restaurant, Natalino’s, on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village. It closed in 2012.
The restaurant has seen a boom in business in recent months thanks to the FX series “The Bear,” about a struggling Chicago beef sandwich shop and its beleaguered kitchen crew. The creator of the TV show, Christopher Storer, grew up with Christopher Zucker, and the restaurant’s interiors in the series 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 Bears producer and Park Ridge native Courtney Storer, who is Christopher’s sister Storer. “He was an incredible storyteller who could capture an entire room for 20 minutes because everyone loved his animation and storytelling.”
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“He really went to bat for all his employees. It was like he was a dad or a dad and we were all like his family, which made for a really fun environment,” Storer said.
In August, Zuckera told The New York Times that the show’s popularity has increased demand for Mr. Beef’s Italian sandwiches from 250-300 each day to 800 a day.
Zuccera was an avid collector of rare movie posters — he often went to movie poster conventions — as well as lobby cards, his son said. He also collected antique cars and dolls.
In addition to his son, Zucker is survived by his wife of 45 years, Camilla; daughter, Lauren; brother Dominic; and sister of Claudine Grippa.
Visitation will be from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Highway in Park Ridge. Funeral services will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.
Goldsboro is a freelance reporter.
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