DOWNTOWN — Nina Santacrose, the Donnie Wahlberg superfan, is going to meet her idol.
Santacrose, who has Down syndrome, has long dreamed of meeting Wahlberg, a musician and actor. He first heard of Santacrose last week, when she told Block Club Chicago she was taking a day off work to go to the Wahlburgers River North opening in hopes of spotting him.
Dozens of people reached out to Wahlberg on social media, asking him to meet with Santacrose at the River North opening and make her dream come true.
As it turns out, Wahlberg can’t make it to that opening — so he’s meeting with Santacrose personally at the groundbreaking of another Wahlburgers in St. Charles on Friday.
Santacrose was also formally invited to the Wahlburgers River North opening, which is scheduled for later this spring.
Santacrose, 22, of suburban Glenview, has been a Wahlberg fan for years. It started when she first watched “Blue Bloods,” on which Wahlberg stars as Danny Reagan, a New York Police detective. “Blue Bloods” quickly became Santacrose’s favorite show and Wahlberg’s Reagan her favorite character.
“I really like him a lot,” Santacrose said. Asked what she’d say to Wahlberg, she said, “I am dying to meet you … . And I’m your biggest fan.”
Santacrose even indulges in “Wahlburgers,” a reality TV show that follows the Wahlberg brothers and their burger business.
But it’s not enough just to watch the shows. When Santacrose turned 21, her family took her on a trip to New York and she insisted on going to police headquarters before anywhere else in tribute to Wahlberg’s character. She met real New York Police officers there and took photos.
“Central Park? No. Going to Broadway for a show? No,” her aunt, Paula Conrad, said. “We had to go to NYPD headquarters.”
A 2018 birthday trip for Santacrose to Boston (the hometown of Wahlberg) focused on her idol, too, with the family heading to a Wahlburger.
“Her brother and sister live there. I’m sure she wanted to see them, but I think paramount to her was going to Wahlburgers to get a burger there,” Conrad said.
Santacrose got to meet chef Paul Wahlberg, Donnie’s brother, during the Boston vacation and was “thrilled,” Conrad said.
But too bad for Paul: Almost immediately afterward she went back to talking about Donnie Wahlberg.
“He couldn’t be nicer,” Santacrose said. “Not as cute as Donnie.”
And when Wahlburgers sent Santacrose a shirt signed by Wahlberg, she was “super excited” … and quickly noted the shirt meant she was “one step closer to meeting Donnie,” Conrad said.
“I was literally in tears,” Santacrose said. “I got so emotional.”
Video of Santacrose getting her signed shirt:
Santacrose’s love for Wahlberg stems from a few things, like the fact that he lives in St. Charles, making him a fellow Illinoisian. But Santacrose also doesn’t think he’s hard on the eyes, which is why he stands above his arguably more famous brother, Mark Wahlberg.
“I don’t mean to be superficial and no offense to the brothers — I think she thinks he’s the most handsome,” Conrad said. “Apologies to Mark and Paul [Wahlberg], etc. I think it boils down to that.”
Nina agreed, saying Donnie Wahlberg is “lots cuter.”
Santacrose has already been to the unfinished Wahlburgers in River North, where employees gifted her the first-ever Chicago Wahlburgers T-shirt and a hat to reward her fandom, Conrad said. They let Santacrose tour the spot and said she was the first person to come in.
“I absolutely loved everything about it,” she said. “I love the burgers.”
Wahlberg might want to leave his wife at home when he hangs out with Santacrose, though.
“She likes Jenny … but I think she’s pretty sure if Donnie meets her he’s gonna fall head over heels,” Conrad joked. “Jenny McCarthy can probably fight — she’s a South Sider — but Nina can take her, I think.”
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