Joseph Zucchero, the man behind Chicago’s legendary Italian beef stand Mr. Beef in River North, which inspired last summer’s breakout hit, The Bear, passed away this week at age 69.
Zucchero’s son Christopher, the co-owner of Mr. Beef, said that his father died unexpectedly on March 1 at Rush Medical Center while undergoing treatment for cancer.
“He was supposed to come home,” he said. Zucchero said the family is waiting to learn the exact cause of his father’s death.
News of his passing was shared on the official Mr. Beef instagram page by his son Christopher Zucchero, who wrote:
“A part of me, my family, and Mr. Beef died today. I was incredibly lucky to be this man’s son. I know this. Most don’t even get to know their dads. I lived every waking moment of my life with him in some kind of capacity. If there truly is a Heaven, I hope you’re there Dad. And I hope I get to see you again. Joesph Zachary Zucchero February 21st 1954-March 1st 2023”
“He was a magnificent human being. He was charismatic. He loved his restaurant. … He loved his family, his children,” Christopher said.
Nothing will be the same at Mr. Beef without his father, Zucchero said.
“There’s going to be a huge … void here,” he said. “I’m in shock. … We act as if he’s still here. That’s kind of how we’re going to maintain and persevere, is to act as if he’s going to come around the corner.”
To honor Zucchero’s memory, Mr. Beef’s doors stayed open after the elder Zucchero’s unexpected passing, his son said.
“We didn’t take any time off” — which is what his dad would have wanted. For 44 years, “Mr. Beef was always open the hours it said it was open,” Christopher said.
According to Zucchero’s son, Mr. Beef only ever closed their doors to accommodate Hulu’s hit Chicago based show, The Bear’s filming schedule, and will close on Saturday for Zucchero’s burial and services.
The Bear is about a classically trained, world renowned chef named Carmen ‘Carmy’ Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White) who takes over his deceased brother’s sandwich shop which was also a family business and all the excitement and drama that comes with it. The fictitious restaurant, The Original Beef of Chicagoland is based on Mr. Beef.
The Italian beef legend was “elated” when Christopher Storer, creator of The Bear and a childhood friend of Christopher Zucchero, centered the show on his shop.
“He was very proud of that,” his son said.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Joseph Zucchero was raised in Norwood Park and attended Taft High School, before settling in Park Ridge in the late 1970’s. As a young man he worked for a carpet company and in the meat department at a North Side Dominick’s grocery, before opening Mr. Beef in the River North neighborhood in 1979. Joe was able to build his restaurant into a Chicago staple over the last 40+ years, through his ability to connect with people from all walks of life, over the shared love of food.
Zucchero told The New York Times in August that the show’s popularity had boosted demand for Mr. Beef’s Italian beef sandwiches, the classic Chicago sandwich of thinly sliced roast beef and tangy giardiniera piled on a roll from 250 to 300 each day to 800 per day.
“The week after it aired, all of a sudden, we were out of bread,” Zucchero said at the time. Some days he keeps the shop open three to four hours past closing time to accommodate the line of customers.
Jay Leno also created a surge in business 2014 when he sat down with Jimmy Fallon and talked about Mr. Beef. When Leno was an up and coming comedian, he would sleep in his car in the Mr. Beef parking lot and has declared that it is the best beef sandwich anywhere. Fallon marveled over the fact that there are so many photos of Leno hung in the shop and he replied, “we go way back.”
Other famous faces who have enjoyed Mr. Beef’s sandwiches include Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsforf, and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and actor Joe Mantegna, who paid his respects with a tweet:
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According to his obituary, Zucchero loved to spend time building his collections of original movie posters, bobbleheads, and antiques from his favorite eras. An avid music fan, he had an eclectic taste, from Frank Sinatra to Steely Dan, the Rascals and Boy George. Zucchero was also a fan of film; in particular from the golden age of Hollywood. He loved his dogs, spending time in the sun, and making friends that became family.
In addition to his son Christopher, Zucchero is survived by his loving wife Camille of 45 years, daughter Lauren, two siblings, beloved dogs Bama, Bailey, and Vinnie, as well as in-laws and 2 nephews.
A visitation will take place from 9 until 11:30 a.m. this Saturday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Highway in Park Ridge. A funeral service will take place at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.
Zucchero’s family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations to One Tail At A Time at onetail.org/donate/ would be appreciated.