Food & Drink | April 22, 2022 8:00 am

Why Are People Lining Up Outside This 84-Year-Old Chicago Grocery Store? 

Why J.P. Graziano is in a class by itself

Graziano's Chicago
Graziano's Chicago illustration
Graziano's Chicago

It’s 10 p.m, and there’s a line out the door and around the corner. People are waiting patiently for the chance to meet rap star Freddie Gibbs and Chicago streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods, who are hosting a midnight pop-up at an 84-year-old Italian grocery store and sandwich shop.

No, this isn’t a MadLibs gone awry. It’s the true tale of a mom-and-pop wholesaler whose fourth-generation owner turned the business around in a time when buying Romano cheese by the 65-pound wheel was no longer the norm.

Jim Graziano never intended to take over J.P. Graziano Grocery, the business in Chicago’s West Loop his great-grandfather — a Sicilian immigrant — started in 1937. After all, while the shop is certainly rich in history, it was far from the younger Graziano’s favorite place to hang out when he was growing up.

“It was Saturday, and days off of school, and summer vacation,” he recalls, “And instead of hanging with my buddies, I was heading right out to Randolph Street to unload trucks and put stock away.”

It probably didn’t help that his father made a massive distinction between their at-home and at-work relationships.

“I remember having that old-school big metal door with two big padlocks, and he took the first lock off the door, and then he put the key in the second lock and kind of looked at me and said, ‘You know, when I open this door, you’re not my son,’” Graziano remembers.

While it was certainly “a bit of a pill to swallow,” he says, he understands, now, what his father meant: that the emotional side of their relationship had to be sidelined at work; that business, at the end of the day, is business.

Despite his misgivings, however, Graziano realized halfway through his sophomore year of college, right after his uncle had retired, that the buck couldn’t stop with him.

“It was kind of like a magnetic pull,” he says. “Like: this is where I’m supposed to be in my life; this is what I want to do. I don’t want it to end on me.”

Once he came onboard, however, Graziano realized that the business was struggling: a wholesaler that just couldn’t keep up with the big guys, whose walk-in customers no longer resembled the big, extended families who once arrived in groups of 10 or 12 to split pasta and tomatoes by the caseload or whole wheels of cheese the Grazianos would divvy up with cheese wire. On the contrary, as the neighborhood began gentrifying, Graziano recalls “really cool WASPs” coming in to buy Italian staples in more … reasonable quantities.

“I remember someone coming up to Uncle Paul, who was my grandfather’s brother, part of the second generation there, for a quarter-pound of cheese,” he says. “The look on his face… like… ‘What about tomorrow? What kind of cheese are you gonna use tomorrow?’”

While the younger Graziano saw the benefit of catering to these consumers’ cheese needs a quarter-pound at a time, he had a hard time changing minds, at least at first. But these new arrivals gave Graziano another key to unlocking the store’s true potential: the gaze of an outsider witnessing its old-school Chicago glory for the first time, all weather-worn wooden floors, shelves bulging with tinned fish and caponata and giardiniera, barrels full of bulk spices, and in the midst of it all, a forklift ferrying products through the space.

“People would just kind of stand there watch this symphony of work going on around them,” Graziano says. “I looked at my dad, and I said, ‘If we could just get people down here, they’d fall in love with the store.’ It’s an unbelievable store, as real as we can get.”

The problem was, of course, how to get people in the doors — and the solution, as it turned out, was sandwiches.

Today, Graziano sells no fewer than a dozen different subs, ranging from porchetta on ciabatta to muffuletta on sesame rolls: stalwart classics of any Italian sub shop, made with high-quality ingredients sourced from local purveyors. It was a keen departure from the wholesale business that made the shop what it is, but Graziano remains modest about the instinct that blossomed into a true turning point.

 “I just felt like … maybe it could be a stream of revenue,” he says. “Like maybe this could be cool and different and give us attention.”

And give them attention it did. Soon after launching sandwiches at the shop, Graziano was invited to ComplexCon — an event where, he notes, he felt like a total fish out of water.

“Everybody around me was like a cool fashion label and all of these amazing shoes, and this guy tagging an El Camino car in the middle of a showroom floor, and I’m like… what am I doing here? I’m an 85-year-old, Italian-owned grocery store!” he recalls.

But over the course of the weekend, he realized that what people craved was what he already had in spades: authenticity. “You don’t have to try to sell that — people are attracted to it,” he says.

The weekend also cemented his friendship with Chicago streetwear designer Joe Freshgoods. Which brings us to the midnight t-shirt bonanza.

The event, Graziano recalls, came together almost seamlessly.

“He just texted me on a whim, because he’s that kind of guy,” he says. “He was like, ‘My buddy Freddie [Gibbs] is performing at Lollapalooza, and I’ve got another guy Anwar [Carrots] up in California, and they work together a lot, and they do like, shirt releases or whatever at kind of like small coffee spots or places that you wouldn’t really expect it, and you’d be perfect for it.’”

They teamed up for a midnight pop-up, selling limited-edition T-shirts designed by Joe Freshgoods and L.A. designer Carrots, not to mention Italian subs, which Graziano began giving away for free when merch sold out almost immediately. The event certainly got people through the door, but for Graziano, the true appeal of J.P. Graziano’s remains its family-run appeal, with Graziano and his older sister DeAna now at the helm.

“She started a few weeks after my dad had passed away, ‘just to help out for a few weeks,’ I remember her saying,” Graziano says. “And now fast-forward these 13 years later, and the place doesn’t run without her, to be very honest with you.”

And while things have certainly changed under their leadership, for Graziano, “really, what works at our store now is all the stuff that I never changed and I never touched.”

“And not just the physical things,” he adds, “but — more importantly — the way we conduct business and how we treat our customers.”

Multiple generations of families, he says, still return with their kids: for the store’s now-famous bottles of giardiniera, for the sandwiches that Graziano categorizes as “top-notch.”

“They are how I provide for our family,” he says. “But what we sell is that service, and that piece of authentic, true, real Chicago. I think that’s what people come back for.”

Jim Graziano is in the business of Old Chicago, so he’s offered InsideHook an exclusive look at what his ideal day of eating his way through the city would look like.

Breakfast: Moon’s Sandwich Shop and Lou Mitchell’s

“I mean, [Moon] is a good sandwich shop, but their breakfast sandwiches to me are the absolute best. And that’s gonna get you a real good feel of the city, because Madison and Western — you’re not gonna confuse it with being on Michigan Avenue.”

“Somewhere a little bit more touristy, but that I think would still be on my list, is Lou Mitchell’s. That egg sandwich is probably world-famous at this point, and I remember standing in line when I was a kid and eating the little doughnuts they would hand out to you and the orange slices on the table. I think those two for early in the day, you absolutely can’t miss.”

Lunch: J.P. Graziano and Mario’s Italian Lemonade

“Our family has done business with Mario’s Italian Lemonade – which is in their third generation of ownership currently. Skippy’s father did business with my great-grandpa from when they opened. In addition to selling Italian lemonade, they also sell like ceci and fave, which are like, fried salted chickpeas and fava beans, and we eat them as snacks. And I take my kids there in the summer, because that’s, like, as real-deal Chicago as you can get.”

Lunch Part 2: Bari and D’Amato’s Bakery

“A lot of people in Chicago always feel like they need to rank sandwiches, which makes me just very uncomfortable in general, to be honest, because number one, food is just so subjective. The best thing in the world can be absolute crap to the next person. But more importantly, our families have a very long history, and I don’t want to ever be, like, don’t go to Bari or fill-in-the-blank — come to me. Like Ralph is right there, just providing for his family like I am.”

“Right next door to them is D’Amato’s Bakery, which is absolutely a monster of a slice of pizza. They’re a third-generation, family-owned place. They’ve got one of the only original coal-fired ovens that’s still used for wholesale stuff. And that’s where I get my bread for our sandwiches, and for me, that’s one of, if not the best bakeries in the city. There’s just a ton of authenticity and history coming out of that place.”

Dinner: La Scarola

“For dinner, if you want to go old school, we’ll stay on Grand Avenue, and we can go to La Scarola, which has been there for probably 35, 40 years, at this point. Back in the day, they were good customers of ours when we did wholesale, Armando, who was the chef then and is the owner now, he’s one of the biggest Chicago characters you’re ever gonna meet. Old-school Italian red sauce joint.”

Nightcap?

“I don’t know if we’re gonna have drinks, but we might grab a little more food. There’s a place called White Palace – a 24-hour place. It’s … I guess they would call that South Loop, nowadays. It’s a 24-hour joint, and that’s real-deal Chicago. An old-school spot. I’ve always thought that late-night, walk-up window, neon light … it’s attractive, it’s cool. To me, especially at night, that’s kind of what bleeds Chicago.”