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Joe Marchetti Jr.

William Rice - October 2001

Foods Arts presents the October 2001 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Joe Marchetti Jr., a Chicago icon whose sensitivity, courage, and unwavering love of the restaurant business have helped him make a bold new start in this still new century.

A photo in a mid-August issue of the Chicago Tribune showed a wrecker's ball flattening a wall of the Como Inn, a vintage 1924 restaurant that grew from 12 tables in a single room to a fiefdom of at least 20 dining rooms with more than 1,200 seats. Marchetti's father, nicknamed Beppino, built the restaurant, and, while Marchetti was not born in the Como Inn, he and his three brothers grew up there. "We always worked there, even as kids," he recalls. "And we lived upstairs. There was no down time, but we had a wonderful relationship with our father and mother. I always knew they loved, and they taught me to love the restaurant business."

At the age of 21, he was chosen to accompany his grandmother on a trip to Italy. As he visited restaurants and food shops, he was not just delighted, he was smitten. "I came back so enthused," he says. "I set my heart on opening a place down the street from the Como Inn."

Joe Jr.'s dream was put on hold when his father became ill. Would Joe, the eldest son, begin working at the Como Inn full time? He did; and when his father died om 1982, he stepped into his shoes. Under the direction of both father and son, the restaurant, located near the intersection of Milwaukee Avenue and Halstead Street, prospered by offering generous and reasonably priced portions of Italian-American food. The Marchettis helped promote Chicago tourism, gave generously to local charities, and made the Inn a favored site for weddings, family reunions, and convention banquets.

Heightened competition, changing tastes, and operating difficulties caused customer counts to shrink in the early 1990s, and in 1996 the restaurant filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Marchetti cut calories, prices, and staff, and the Como Inn barely limped into the 21st century. A few months later, it closed.

Marchetti didn't watch the destruction of the restaurant he had finally sold. The developer will reseed the property with condominiums and perhaps a new restaurant.

At 67, Marchetti's mind is elsewhere. Across a ravine from the old Inn (through which flows the 10-lane Kennedy Freeway) is the Galleria Marchetti, providing an instant ticker to Tuscany in leafy bloom. Once a showroom that housed his collection of vintage Ferraris (the Como Inn sold tons of high profit pasta during its salad days), it has become in recent years a very popular site for indoor and al fresco wedding receptions and other private parties.

While recuperating from a serious operation a year ago, Joe Marchetti determined to finally make his youthful dream a reality. In the Galleria, away from the party space, he has created Piazza M, his Platonic idea of bella Italia, a simple 60-seat trattoria.