CHICAGO — Jim Graziano never pictured rapper Freddie Gibbs passing out sandwiches at midnight behind the counter of his family’s 84-year-old Italian food importing and distribution business.
His great-grandfather, Vincenzo Graziano, used to count the money behind that same wooden counter at 901 W. Randolph St. back in 1937 when he started J.P. Graziano Grocery, selling wholesale Italian products like olive oil, baccalà and pastas to other mom-and-pop shops in what is now known as the West Loop.
During Lollapalooza last year, the old-school store was the site of one of the city’s hottest afterparties.
Jim Graziano teamed up with Gibbs, Los Angeles street designer Anwar Carrots and Chicago streetwear pioneer Joe Freshgoods for a midnight pop-up at the family-owned shop, selling limited-edition T-shirts featuring all of their brands. There were plenty of Italian subs to go around, too.
As the fourth-generation owner of J.P. Graziano, Jim Graziano, now 41, is working to keep the historic business fresh.
“There is a ton of life in this place,” Graziano said. “I can sell to an 85-year-old lady that’s been shopping here for 60 years, but I can also link up with Joe Freshgoods and make the baddest hoodie anybody has seen in their life. And we’ll throw a block party on Randolph on four hours’ notice.”
Freshgoods, real name Joseph Robinson, tweeted about the event just four hours prior, drawing lines down the block to Washington. Robinson, a Graziano faithful, said the shop “makes you feel at home.”
“It’s one of those spots that keeps me staying in Chicago. It’s timeless,” Robinson said. “With Chicago being such a big food city, they’re grandfathered into our culture. We’re two Chicago staples, so it was the perfect marriage.”
Graziano said that the family business is a “living Chicago museum.” The smells of spices and olives and cheese and meat have long seeped into the ancient walls. Customers stop by in the summer just to “take a whiff” of the Chicago nostalgia.
Old shelves are scattered with leftover tin cans of “Victoria” brand olive oil that Vincenzo used to hand-pack in the basement. Signs made in the 1920s hang above with simple offerings of “Meats” and “Groceries.” Graziano’s sister, DeAna, works behind the sturdy wooden pay window where her great-grandfather made his second home — and Freddie Gibbs that one time.
Anchoring the middle of J.P. Graziano is the family’s century-old, iron-clad safe. It still has the dent marks made by robbers when they took a hammer to it after carving through the building’s roof in the 1940s, Graziano said.
The building has survived it all, seen it all, through eight decades-plus of neighborhood change.
“The heart of this neighborhood is still alive and well. It’ll always be an old school concept here,” Graziano said. “But now there’s the Nobu Hotel across the street.”
Graziano said he was a sophomore at DePaul University when he felt the “magnetic pull” to lead the family business into its next generation. The true family inheritance, Graziano said, is Vincenzo’s immigrant work ethic and a crafty sense of entrepreneurship.
But what would great-grandpa think about the parties? The rubbing-elbows with fashion designers and rappers? Would he rock the t-shirt and go along with it?
“He would just ask me one question,” Jim Graziano said. “‘Are you taking care of your family?’”
Graziano said 2020, despite the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the business’ most successful year to date.
At the start of the new year, Graziano opened a warehouse in suburban Norridge to fulfill orders for his new sister company “Taste Real Chicago,” which sells and ships bottles of J.P. Graziano’s most famous condiments — like giardiniera and muffuletta — to home kitchens around the country.
The business must adapt, Graziano said, but the values and lessons of his legendary Chicago-Italian family have always stayed the same.
“I’m deep rooted in the history and the authenticity and the legacy of this place, but could it be more?” Graziano said. “Everything I do, I want it to make sense for what we are, who we are, what I was raised by.”
‘If People Don’t Walk In That Door, We Don’t Put Shoes On Our Feet‘
During lunch rush on a recent Thursday, with hungry Chicagoans waiting for a bite in hard hats and suits alike, Jim Graziano was constantly in motion. He picked up the phones, fixed the ball-bearings on the meat slicer, and dished out encouragement to the quick-handed sandwich line like an impassioned high school football coach.
Graziano remembers when he was a kid and his dad, James F. Graziano, would bring him to the shop “kicking and screaming.” Summers of “breaking ass” at the family shop was a rite-of-passage, a first-hand education in the Graziano way.
James F. Graziano’s first lesson: “If people don’t walk in that door, we don’t put shoes on our feet.”
“You started on the bottom rung. I swept the floors, and I still do,” Jim Graziano said. “My family taught me how to come to work every single day. No matter what. That’s the work ethic.”
Vincenzo Graziano immigrated to Chicago from Sicily in the early 1900s, with no money to his name. He worked various odd jobs and saved up to open a corner store, Graziano Grocery Company, at 1376 W. Grand Ave. in the 1920s, selling groceries like milk and bread to neighbors.
The Great Depression forced the shop to close, and Vincenzo, thinking fast on his feet, went to work for his father-in-law at the Chicago Macaroni Company. Moving macaroni taught Vincenzo the ins-and-outs of importing and distributing food from Italy to the U.S.
RELATED: J.P. Graziano Celebrates 84 Years Of Feeding Chicago, From Italian Imports To Legendary Sandwiches
After reopening the Grand Avenue shop, Vincenzo Graziano bought a chunk of the factory at 901 W. Randolph St. in 1937 to sell specialty Italian-imported wholesale products to local restaurants, delis and mom-and-pop shops. Graziano’s brother lived in Sicily and made boxes for a living. The two collaborated to box and ship hand-picked exclusive brands of pastas, cheeses, meats and olive oils to Chicago.
The business has since been passed down through four generations, Jim Graziano said, from his great-grandpa Vincenzo to grandpa Alfredo and great-uncle Paul, to father James F. Graziano and his brother-in-law Larry Pienta.
Jim Graziano took over the business the day his father died in 2008. He knew that day, like every day, he had to go to work.
“Someone needed to load the truck. It was a Tuesday. My dad told me I had to go to work every day. And there was work to do,” Graziano said. “I got myself together.”
Graziano was putting out wholesale boxes for morning pickup on the day his father died when Oscar Sanchez just happened to be walking down Randolph Street, and asked, “Do you need any help?”
“I needed help at that moment more than I ever needed it,” Graziano said. “So I said pick up that case and put it on the truck.”
Graziano hired Sanchez on the spot, and now he is the shop’s longest tenured employee — the man every sandwich must go through. Back in 2005, Graziano had looked at the books and noticed the family’s wholesale business was struggling. He pitched to his father the prospect of selling sandwiches in the corner of the store, veering away from the family’s tried-and-true origins.
Now, J.P. Graziano sells hundreds of sandwiches a day, with lines during lunch hours. Graziano went all-in on Italian subs and shut down the wholesale business a few years after his father died.
“I tore myself apart when I knew I had to shut down the wholesale business. I thought I had to give up my great-grandpa’s legacy,” Graziano said. “But the sandwiches just kept growing and growing, even as this neighborhood flipped on its head. I wasn’t giving it up, I was making it last.”
Graziano still heard an earful from long-time customers missing the glory days of wholesale, especially the giardiniera, an iconic Italian-Chicago relish of pickled vegetables, olive oil and a Graziano-twist of Manzanilla olives. The recipe had been in the family since the 1950s.
Graziano started pulling guys off of the sandwich line to package 16-ounce bottles of giardiniera for loyal customers. The jars were a hit. Graziano partnered with a third-party distributor in 2019 and started selling giardiniera and muffuletta to home-kitchens across the country.
With his new warehouse in Norridge, Graziano said he will continue to sell “hundreds of thousands of jars” of “Taste Real Chicago” products each year. About 95 percent of sales come from customers outside the city.
“We’re introducing Chicago culture to everybody else,” Graziano said. “Your customers start as people who know this giardiniera from being in Chicago. They move away, their family moves away, and they ship it. Because this to me is the Chicago condiment. It’s as real to Chicago as it gets.”
Bottling the family nostalgia for a new age of at-home chefs stuck-at-home helped J.P. Graziano stay afloat during the pandemic.
And there was more family magic, Graziano said, watching over these ancient walls.
The first time Graziano renovated the building, he discovered, underneath a dense layer of brick, the original door his great-grandfather used as the storefront. With its chipped green paint and barn door, Graziano reimagined it as a late-night walk-up window.
J.P. Graziano now has expanded hours to 1 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays to serve hungry late-night revelers in the trendy Fulton Market District. When COVID-19 shut down indoor dining, Vincenzo’s old-school door provided a socially distanced solution.
“What got us through COVID was this walk-up window,” Graziano said. “Everything in this place is important to me. It keeps you grounded to where you started. What your roots are.”
Graziano fashioned the old-school door with a blow-up photo of great-grandpa Vincenzo, grandpa Alfredo and great-uncle Paul — one of the only known photos of them operating the business.
“My great-grandpa didn’t give a shit about my Instagram page. They were too busy working to take pictures,” Graziano said. “People still needed to walk through that door. In this business you gotta be able to get punched in the mouth, and keep going.”
‘One Hand Washes The Other, Both Hands Wash The Face‘
Joe Freshgoods’ favorite Graziano sandwich is a turkey/roast beef combo with provolone cheese, hot peppers and mayo. Graziano named it after him, “The JFG Sandwich,” one of the most popular on the shop’s secret menu, paying old-school respects to the trendy West Side streetwear designer who has merged Chicago culture with multinational brands like 7-Eleven, AT&T, the White Sox, the Bears and New Balance.
“Not to be biased, but my sandwich is the best sandwich,” Robinson said. “It’s timeless. It’s always going to taste the same. The same hands make it with love every time. Really good, bread, meat, cheese — f–k it, now I’m talking about it, I’m gonna get that for lunch today.”
Graziano remembers Robinson as just another usual customer, one who happened to be “dressed so cool.” Graziano’s eyes popped when he looked him up and saw his following.
“I’m just the coolest, hippest, youngest guy you’ll ever meet,” Graziano said with a chuckle. “Tell my daughter about that and you’ll see eyes roll out of her head.”
Graziano sent a handwritten letter and four jars of giardiniera to Robinson’s store, Fat Tiger Workshop. Robinson sent him back a pair of his signature New Balance sneakers.
“I was shocked that Jim knew who I was,” Robinson said. “But he’s just such a warm-hearted, family dude. And then sometimes it’s like, ‘Let’s just pop-off on some fly shit.’”
Graziano and Robinson concocted a plan to host an after-party at J.P. Graziano following Freddie Gibbs’ Lollapalooza set. Robinson said the midnight pop-up was “kind of a weird thing.” Event shirts sold out almost instantly. Graziano felt bad and gave everyone else in line a free sandwich. All proceeds on the night were donated to Robinson’s charity, Community Goods.
“The people were going nuts,” Graziano said. “It was one of the coolest nights I’ve ever been here. But it just starts like everything else, just two Chicago guys that share a passion for staying real to your city.”
Graziano said he was first introduced to streetwear and hip-hop culture when a neighboring ad agency, The Times, invited him to share a booth at ComplexCon in 2019. Graziano brought his meat-slicer and some sandwiches and said he felt like “the biggest sore thumb sticking out.”
“I realized driving home at 2 o’clock in the morning, all this stuff just racing through my head — ‘Real,’” Graziano said. “Everything there is so real, has a story, is widely authentic. These people don’t care what everyone else says and thinks, they just create what’s just dying to pour out of them. That’s what street culture is.”
Graziano was suddenly in the business of selling not just sandwiches, but the story of his family — the grit, the hustle, the authenticity of hard-working Italian immigrants who sustained a Chicago dynasty from the ground up.
Jars of peppers, sandwiches and friendly notes went out to more Chicago brands that Graziano admired. His most successful partnership is with the Chicago chapter of Barstool Sports, the polarizing media brand that promotes a “Barstool Beef Kit,” a package of mezzo giardiniera and Italian beef seasoning to put on slow-cooked Italian beef.
Graziano said the “Barstool Beef Kit,” still less than a year-old, is already the “frontrunner” for the business’ best-selling product.
“They’re just real Chicago guys, a really organic relationship, and I know everything we talked about, I saw almost immediately take off,” Graziano said.
The spirit of collaboration with fellow Chicago businesses can be traced back to great-grander Vincenzo, Graziano said. In the early days of his first grocery on Grand, Vincenzo Graziano was just one link in a network of Italian immigrants, like “the fish guy, the meat guy, the supply guy,” Jim Graziano said, who mutually supported each other with their different goods. Graziano said his great-grandfather would keep tabs open for neighbors, on the trust that they would pay him back at the end of the week.
He used to say, “One hand washes the other, both hands wash the face.”
“Chicagoans are all in this together,” Graziano said. “When you make it all a two-way street, when everybody walks away feeling they won, those are the best relationships.”
During lunch rush DeAna Graziano worked behind her great-grandfather’s pay window wearing a jacket the family business made in collaboration with Gente Fina, a Latinx-owned streetwear brand started in Chicago.
The front of the varsity jacket reads “Chicagoan” and back, “Till Chicago Ends.” Graziano said it may be his favorite collaboration yet.
“That’s what it’s all about. These are the people that come to my store. They know that we represent the real Chicago. That’s what we stand for,” Graziano said. “That love is not a flash-in-the-pan kind of success. It’s sustainable.”
Graziano jolted back to the sandwich line. Oscar Sanchez applied the meat, general manager Shaun Pain (which translated in French, means “bread”) worked the bread, and Graziano wrapped the sandwiches using his signature technique.
The shop is as busy as it’s ever been, Graziano said, but no matter the growth, the clout, it is the ball-busting work ethic, passed down from his immigrant great-grandfather Vincenzo and through generations of Chicagoans, that keeps the lights on.
Jim Graziano’s two children, 9-year-old Francesca and 5-year-old Vincenzo, are already packing jars of giardiniera at home.
“I tell them, the food on your plate comes from these peppers,” Graziano said. “Our heart and soul is on Randolph Street. And my heart may explode with pride and joy, if I’m around long enough, for one of them to take over.”
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