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Josephine "Mama" Minelli, 1910-2009

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By guest blogger and local freelancer Leah A. Zeldes

Our condolences go out to the family of Josephine Minelli and to generations of Chicago-area Italian-food lovers. The matriarch of the Minelli Meat and Deli family, fondly known as "Mama Minelli," died Tuesday at age 99. By all accounts, she lived a life as robust as her marinara.

Until an ambulance took her away from the stove two years ago, Mrs. Minelli was still making meatballs at the family store -- up to 200 pounds at a time, all by hand. The shop, at 7900 N. Milwaukee, Niles, is the third in a series of food stores she and her late husband, Philip, first opened in 1957.

The first Minelli store stood on the corner of Western Avenue and Lexington Street in the Little Italy neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, dispensing Italian groceries, 10-cent beers and shots. In 1970, Mrs. Minelli and her three sons -- Lenny, John and Alfred -- expanded to a full-service Centrella grocery and Italian specialty market in Niles, and began making prepared foods, beginning with Mrs. Minelli's meatballs, which she insisted should be made by hand.

Thirty-seven years later, Mrs. Minelli presided over the grand opening of the newest location, a deli and butcher shop in Oak Mill Mall, where her grandsons Mario Minelli, Lenny Minnelli Jr. and Ozzie Caccavella continue to offer the locally celebrated meatballs as well as house-made Italian beef, sausage, salads and other foods prepared from Mama Minelli's recipes.

Born in Montefalco, Italy, near Naples, Mrs. Minelli immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s, where she met her husband and reared her family on Taylor Street. Before opening the grocery store, she worked at the Ferrara Pan Candy Co. and the National Biscuit Co.

Though she spent the last two years in a nursing home, St. Matthew Center for Health in Park Ridge, Mrs. Minelli daily entertained large groups of visitors and continued to take a lively interest in the family store.

Visitation for Mrs. Minelli will be held from 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Skaja Funeral Home, 7812 N. Milwaukee, Niles. Funeral services begin at 9 a.m. Monday at Skaja, followed by Mass at St. Isaac Jogues, 8149 W. Golf , Niles, and interment at Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery & Mausoleums, 1400 S. Wolf, Hillside.

2 Comments

Auntie Jo, that's how I grew up knowing her. Ever since I was a liitle kid my Dad(Dominic) would take to Minelli Bother's every saturday and I would go in back to see Auntie Jo, She would always be working, but as soon as she saw me it was like the world stopped, she would give me the biggest hug and kiss, that always made me feel special. She will be missed. My family's prayers go out to her family and close freinds, God bless you all, The world lost one its shining stars.

Mama Minelli, we will miss you greatly. I have know you since I was 2 years old. You were the heart and sole of Minelli Meat and Deli.
I love you and will miss you..

Little Jackie

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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