LINCOLN PARK — Jelica Jordanovska’s skirt is still draped over her favorite chair in the back of the family restaurant.
For four decades, Jordanovska sat in that chair, baking and cooking, leaving behind a deep divot in the table inside Branko’s, 1118 W. Fullerton Ave. She learned to roll dough and slow-cook Macedonian stews with one arm after treatment for illness weakened her other arm, her relatives said.
When Jordanovska died last year at 84, her children promised to preserve the business their family built across from the DePaul University campus after fleeing impending turmoil in former Yugoslavia.
Gordana Jordanovska, one of the family’s daughters, has returned to Chicago from San Francisco, reopening her parents’ restaurant this month for the first time since the pandemic.
“She made us promise to keep the doors open,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “And by that she meant keep the community open. This shop is Lincoln Park’s living room.”
Gordana Jordanovska brought on her nephew, Nenad Jovanovic, who traded a job in fine dining for a red Vienna Beef apron and a place behind his family’s counter.
“All she wanted to do was feed people,” Gordana Jordanovska said of her mother. “She’d look at you in the eyes and smile while you ate.”
‘There Was Always Enough Food For Everyone’
Jelicia Jordanovska and husband Branko Jordanovski grew up in small villages in Mavrovo National Park, now in North Macedonia and formerly Yugoslavia, Gordana Jordanovska said.
Both learned to live off the land and provide for their community: raising livestock, crocheting clothes, baking bread and picking fruits and herbs, their daughter said. They met at a wedding and soon married.
Branko Jordanovski apprenticed as a baker in Belgrade, Serbia, and opened a bakery with his brother in the corner of a big building in a small town, Gordana Jordanovska said.
“He had just enough money for salt and water. And someone gave him a chance,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “He and his brother shared a coat.”
Branko Jordanovski soon brought his wife and their kids with him, and the extra hands helped the business take off, Gordana Jordanovska said. One bakery led to another, one specializing in filo dough and one in Burek, a Balkan specialty made with paper-thin stretched dough and a variety of fillings.
But Branko Jordanovski started to receive letters with blue and white stripes from Jelicia Jordanovska’s brother in the United States, said Ilinka “Beba” Jovanovic, one of their other daughters.
Economic crisis and political unrest ravished Yugoslavia in the ’80s, leading to wars in the early ’90s. The family fled to Chicago.
“My parents left behind two lucrative bakeries, a farm and their families to come to a country where they didn’t speak the language. They were fearless,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “We came to O’Hare with maybe four boxes.”
The couple worked nights at a South Side commercial bakery owned by Jelicia Jordanovska’s brother. They saved up enough in six months to start their own restaurant in Lincoln Park, taking over an Italian submarine shop.
The couple remolded the place by hand and added its signature wood panelings, opening the doors of Branko’s in January 1976, Gordana Jordanovska said.
“He worked with what he had. And that was subs and sandwiches,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “They thought if they could bake bread, they could make a sandwich.”
The couple picked banana peppers, tomatoes, dill, parsley, basil and nettle from their backyard garden, chopped their own vegetables, hand-trimmed meats and put homemade marinara sauce on Chicago-style Italian beefs, Gordana Jordanovska said.
“They believed in slow food with quick service,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “I think the people who came here and ate can appreciate it, but my parents never felt the need to talk about it.”
The couple’s four daughters grew up playing with empty Vienna Beef boxes and doing their math homework behind the counter, Gordana Jordanovska said. They helped their parents take orders in English and worked 14-hour days alongside them, even through summers in college, Ilinka Jovanovic said.
As kids, they’d stand on milk cartoons and take five or six orders at a time as lines stretched down Fullerton Avenue, Ilinka Jovanovic said.
“But it never felt like work. It was our lifestyle,” Ilinka Jovanovic said. “There was a joy in doing it together as a family. It was a team effort. And then the neighborhood became our family, too.”
Holidays like Slava were spent dancing with family in the restaurant’s dining room, Gordana Jordanovska said. They’d fire up the grill late at night when they grew tired and hungry, she said.
Branko’s churned out the basics as DePaul University grew around them. Jovanovic remembers when the quad across from Branko’s was a gravel parking lot; at the corner were rolling hills where kids tossed frisbees and sunbathed. The food they liked has stayed the same.
Jelica Jordanovska would refill fries, and the students would send her Mother’s Day cards. They brought their parents to meet the couple when they came to visit campus. Some went on to bring their own kids and then their grandkids, Gordana Jordanovska said.
The couple fed the kitchen staff getting off work late from Charlie Trotter’s, hosted dancers and soccer players from Yugoslavia and prepared traditional stews and soups such as pasulj and goulash for family, telling Chicagoans to “try this” if they caught a glimpse of peppers roasting on the grill, Gordana Jordanovska said.
It wouldn’t matter if you were a few bucks short for a warm meal, Gordana Jordanovska said.
“There was always enough food for everyone. That’s how we were raised,” she said.
“Mr. Branko” and “Mama” became a second family for generations of homesick students, Gordana Jordanovska said.
“Mama was the heart and soul of this neighborhood,” Ilinka Jovanovic said. “She was the one who set the table for all of this.”
But with their health declining, keeping the restaurant open was an impossible challenge when the pandemic hit, Gordana Jordanovska said. It closed in March 2020 — and the family lost their matriarch, Jelica Jordanovska, in the interim.
“My mom would come down here and hate seeing it dark,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “She didn’t understand why we had to close.”
Gordana Jordanovska spent the past year securing restaurant permits, reconnecting with food providers and renovating, all while balancing her architecture business in San Francisco.
Branko’s reopened Nov. 5.
Customer Dave Johnson’s eyes swelled with tears as he came back Saturday for the first time since the closure. He pointed to the chair closest to the register, where Jelica Jordanovska always sat, “just talking to customers,” he said. Gordana Jordanovska has put up a mural of her mom behind the register.
“It never felt like you were just waiting for your order here,” Johnson said. “It was about the people more than it was about the food. She had a great life spirit. And this place filled you up.”
Elena Fisher, a freshman at DePaul, and Nanette Hunter, a freshman at Loyola, shared lunch at Branko’s for the first time, sitting in front of the shop’s signature wood paneling, which is covered with old family photos.
“Students are going to come here again,” Fisher said.
“My dad is a chef,” Hunter said, holding back tears. “This makes me want to write down his recipes.”
The family patriarch, Branko Jordanovski, has had strokes in recent years but still lives above the restaurant. The children brought him down to the restaurant the night it reopened, and he “immediately checked that everything was clean,” Gordana Jordanovska said.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in two years,” she said.
In the time Gordana Jordanovska has to spare between her business in San Francisco and her one in Chicago, she’ll sit in her mother’s chair, draped with her old skirt, trying her best to cook her favorite stews.
She hopes to introduce some of them to the menu for the first time.
“There’s no recipes. She measured everything by her hand. I’ve been practicing. But it’ll never be as good as hers,” Gordana Jordanovska said. “I feel her presence a lot.”