CHICAGO — Nina Santacrose, the Donnie Wahlberg superfan, got to meet her idol Friday.
Santacrose, who has Down syndrome, has been Wahlberg’s biggest fan and dreamed of meeting him for years. 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.
Wahlberg arranged a meeting and the two were able to speak and exchange gifts Friday at the groundbreaking of a suburban St. Charles Wahlburgers.
Santacrose introduced herself to Wahlberg by saying she is the singer and actor’s biggest fan, and he told Santacrose he is her biggest fan, too, said Paula Conrad, Santacrose’s aunt. The two hugged and posed for photos. Wahlberg signed Santacrose’s hat and gave her tickets to see his band, New Kids on the Block.
Wahlburgers will also honor Santacrose by giving her a designated seat complete with a plaque with her name on it at the new River north location. She’s also been invited to the opening of that Wahlburgers later this spring.
In exchange, Santacrose gave Wahlberg a bag of sweets from Misericordia, where she volunteers.
After Block Club’s story, 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. He quickly agreed to meet her in St. Charles.
In avideo sent to Santacrose on Thursday, Wahlberg told her he was filming “Blue Bloods” but wanted to send her a message before he got back on set.
“I wanted you to know I can’t wait to meet you,” Wahlberg said, waving at the camera. “I look forward to it, and I’m so thankful that you’re a fan.”
Watch the video:
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,” she said.
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,” 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 Wahlburgers.
“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.”
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