Almost a year since Nini’s Deli closed in West Town after a series of anti-Black, Islamaphobic, and homophobic comments made by the owners, the once much-hyped empanada and sandwich shop is planning a return on July 6, and the announced caused an eruption Wednesday from angry Chicagoans who took to social media to show their displeasure with owner Juan “Juany” Riesco.
Thousands of comments appeared on Riesco’s Facebook and Instagram accounts criticizing the decision to reopen including “YIKES! this is some clownery” and “I give it a week before they run back to Texas.” Though the negative comments outnumbered them, there were a few supportive comments mixed in.
On a quiet residential block between Grand and Chicago Avenue and west of the Kennedy Expressway, since opening in 2013, Nini’s gained popularity thanks to a mystique built up by effective guerrilla marketing. The deli served empanadas, cafe con leche and sandwiches. But the positive vibes deteriorated on June 5, 2020 after owner Juan Riesco and his brother José mocked the Black Lives Matter movement and made racist comments.. José, was caught on an Instagram video saying, “Black Lives Matter kills more people than the Ku Klux Klan did, do you understand that?”
The comments were a shocking betrayal to many: Juan Riesco developed a rabid fanbase over the years creating relationships with brands, like Nike. He depicted Nini’s as an authentic Chicago story, a family-owned restaurant that welcomed all and cared about their community. Riesco hung out with celebrities like former Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, a Chicago native. “Chicago Native” became the name of Riesco’s own clothing brand that folded after the public heard his bigoted comments. Responding to a large crowd of protesters that flooded the street in front of the restaurant on June 6, 2020, brands — including Nike, Intelligentsia Coffee, and Bang Bang Pie & Biscuit — withdrew support. The restaurant never reopened and remained boarded up and painted black until this week.
The weekend after the closure, Juan Riesco attempted to explain his comments and decision to shutter in an interview with the Tribune. He said he felt pressured to make a public statement backing Black Lives Matter but disagreed with the group’s support of LGBTQ and abortion rights, two tenets Riesco’s church opposed. He refused to buckle to public outcry which he said was mounting as George Floyd’s murder happened the week before.
Juan Riesco is a deacon at Metro Praise International, which is in favor of LGBTQ conversion “therapy”; one of its tenets is to “speak against the LGBT lifestyle from the pulpit, whatever outlet we are provided, or whenever the issue is raised.” Located in Belmont-Cragin, a neighborhood hit hard by COVID-19, despite the impact on its residents, the church controversially ignored stay-at-home orders and continued services during the pandemic.
In response, a group of workers from other restaurants launched the spoof food truck Nono’s Deli to raise money for My Block My Hood My City and Center on Halsted, two charities that support Black and LGBTQ communities, while protesters crowded the streets in front of Nini’s. Riesco ultimately closed the restaurant, stating that his family had received death threats and was a victim of cancel culture, while, a few of the street brands that were once loyal to Nini’s moved on and opened their own restaurant. Three House, also serves empanadas and iced cafe con leches in the mold of Nini’s. Riesco’s supporters have alleged that Three House stole Nini’s recipes. One Chicago chef scoffed at that conclusion in a text exchange with Eater: “LMFAO what recipe? The Goya disk filled with more Goya Sazón and cheese?”
Riesco has been trying to revive Nini’s throughout the pandemic; in July, he vied to move into the Ukrainian Village space where Tamale Guy Chicago ended up. According to his announcement, he’s since decided to reopen inside the same space “to double down on our Christian worldview and reopen our family business for the glory of God alone!!”
“It is an interesting time to be a vocal Christian business, but we also know all Christians are to be a light in a dark place, and this is the place we are called to,” the post continued. In a video interview from April with Standing for Freedom Center — an arm of evangelical Christian Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell Sr.) — Riesco calls Christians who support LGBTQ people and Black Lives Matter “tools of liberal propaganda.” He adds they are not “true soldiers of the lord.”
Earlier in June, Riesco appeared in Downtown Dallas to preach on the street at a Pride Month event. The June timing of Nini’s announcement coincides with his church’s mission of using all platforms against the LGBTQ communities.
Riesco declined comment on Thursday, saying he would chat with media at a later date. Friday morning, a tenant who lives in the apartments above the restaurant — the building is owned by the Riescos — defended his landlord’s statements. He declined giving his name and says that Riesco felt pressured last year to support Black Lives Matter and didn’t want to succumb. “He didn’t want to make a political statement,” the tenant said. “If he didn’t, they said they were going to cancel him.”