The founder of Mr. Beef, the legendary Italian beef stand that’s served River North for more than 40 years and became the inspiration for The Bear television show, has died.
Joe Zucchero died on Wednesday, March 1, at Rush Medical Center in Chicago after fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for more than two decades. He was 69. Zucchero and his brother, Dominic, opened the tiny stand in 1979, and it’s remained as the neighborhood has changed into one of the poshest dining districts in the city, going from “skid row” to the home of million-dollar residences. Mr. Beef is one of the last Chicago street food stands around the city’s downtown area, giving locals an affordable option that’s increasingly harder to find.
Even while battling cancer, Zucchero loved his restaurant and serving his customers. His daughter, Lauren, talks about how her father refused to raise the cost of Italian beef while the cost of beef skyrocketed in recent years.
“My dad was gregarious, he was rough around the edges,” his daughter says. “He had a very big heart and he loved being around the restaurant.”
When Chicagoans argue about the best Italian beef in town, comparing the bread and thin-sliced slivers of beef soaked in jus, Mr. Beef is in most conversations. The sandwich, now a hot commodity across the country, has been around since the 1930s. Invented by Italian Americans who wanted to stretch their dollars by slow-cooking less-desirable cuts of beef to feed large groups of people, it’s a definitive Chicago street food — “a very trivial and esoteric thing” in the city, says Joseph Zucchero’s son, Chris Zucchero.
Rivalries have developed between Italian beef stands in Chicago, but Joe Zucchero never bad-mouthed other restaurants, his son says, and kept out of most conflicts. A unique aspect of Mr. Beef is its location which isn’t far from the Loop and its office buildings and former Cabrini-Green, the large Chicago Housing Authority development that brew began tearing down in the late ’90s. The location gave the restaurant a diverse customer base, and Joe Zucchero became a beloved figure. Chris Zucchero expects many fans to turn out for the funeral.
“As I got older, as I was trying to fight for that motherfucker’s attention, I realized that he was important to a lot of people,” Chris Zucchero says. “A lot of people needed him, people who weren’t lucky to have a father or their own restaurant.”
The Zuccheros have been reluctant to embrace the attention from The Bear. Chris Zucchero is friends with Chris Storer, the show’s creator. Chris Zucchero jokes and says his father probably loved Storer’s sister, Courtney, more than his own children. The families grew up in Park Ridge. Storer didn’t consult with Zucchero before he wrote the pilot but showed off the set before filming. In July, following the release of the critically lauded FX show, Chris Zucchero says his father visited the TV show’s set, even while battling cancer.
Chris Zucchero mentioned celebrities and politicians — including Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsforf, and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — who dined at the restaurant. Actor Joe Mantegna mourned Zucchero’s death.
35 years ago my wife surprised me on my birthday by having a party in Chicago catered by Mr. Beef. Thus began a friendship that has endured all these years.— Joe Mantegna (@JoeMantegna) March 3, 2023
R.I.P Joe Zucchero. I’m glad you were around to see the success of @TheBearFX The beat goes on.
TV depicts a restaurant with a much larger kitchen (The Bear’s restaurant is called the Original Beef of Chicagoland and legal issues barred the TV show from using the Mr. Beef name). Crews are currently filming around Chicago for its second season, visiting places such as Pequod’s Pizza. Officials from FX, which produces the show that streams on Hulu, had no immediate comment about Joe Zucchero’s passing. Chris Zucchero says actor Edwin Lee Gibson, who plays Ebraheim, texted him with words of support after his father’s death.
But even before The Bear, Mr. Beef had a connection to Hollywood. The restaurant caught the attention of late-night comic Jay Leno before he landed on The Tonight Show. Chris Zucchero (who appears on a few episodes of The Bear) told WGN radio that Leno even had a key to the restaurant. The Zuccheros have said Leno put Mr. Beef on the map. Chris Zucchero adds that Kansas City, Missouri native Mancow Muller also played a big role by talking about Mr. Beef in the ‘90s while he had a hit Chicago radio show.
The restaurant is a survivor, even fighting off foreclosure in 2009. In March of that year, Zucchero traveled to the nation’s capital to testify in front of a House subcommittee to discuss the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, a government program created to establish stability after the financial crisis of 2008. Zucchero also had a second restaurant, Natalino’s, in River North. The restaurant closed in 2012.
“We source all of our food and our products from small business purveyors,” Zucchero told the subcommittee in 2009. “The economic downturn has had its impacts on my business due to loss of jobs and income from local residents who live and work near downtown Chicago.”
His son would tease his father after he returned home from D.C.: “That was the only time an Italian American has gone before Congress and wasn’t indicted,” Chris Zucchero says while laughing. “That’s my dad speaking through me — he didn’t mince words, he was very lovable, his personality was magnetic here.”
Chris Zucchero lives in Minnesota but says with his sister and friends in Chicago that Mr. Beef will continue. Zucchero’s comments from 2009 in front of the House continue to be relevant today as small businesses struggle through the ripple effects of the pandemic. Part of Mr. Beef’s charm, as Zucchero said back in 2009, was the relationships with small vendors, and that includes bakeries. As easy as chefs in other cities believe it is to copy Italian beef sandwiches, Mr. Beef focuses on details. This includes the French rolls which have the perfect density to sop up the beef’s jus. In Mr. Beef’s case, it’s a small bakery called Liborio.
Visitation for Joseph “Joe” Zucchero is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 11, at Cooney Funeral Home in Park Ridge. A service will follow at the funeral home.
Update: This story has been updated with comments from siblings Chris and Lauren Zucchero.