Maryann Mantegna was a protective mom who didn’t quite grasp show business.
When her son Joe joined TV’s hit one-hour show “Criminal Minds,” she confided her misgivings to her son Ron. “I’m a little worried about your brother,” she said. “He used to do movies, he used to do lots of things. Now, he’s working only an hour a week.”
“Give him a call,” Mrs. Mantegna urged. “Make sure he’s OK.”
She asked maternal questions about Joe’s acting jobs: “Do you dress well? And are you alive at the end?”
Mrs. Mantegna, 101, a daughter of Italian immigrants who worked for decades as a shipping clerk to help support her family, died peacefully in her sleep April 3 at Whitehall of Deerfield.
Her only vice was anything chocolate. She enjoyed remarkable health. At 92, she recovered quickly from a hip replacement. After that, “You couldn’t find her. She was never in her room,” Joe Mantegna said.
“She wore out three pairs of shoes, scooting along in her wheelchair,” Ron Mantegna said.
“You’ve heard of therapy dogs?” Ron Mantegna asked in his eulogy. “Mom was a therapy Italian. Mom dished out joy everywhere she went. Even at 100, scratch her back and she’d sing you a song — ‘I love you, a bushel and a peck’ — cracking inappropriate jokes . . . and training Eastern European caregivers how to swear in Italian.”
Her father, Joseph Novelli, immigrated to America and wound up in Chicago, where he met and married her mother, Marietta, another native of Acquaviva delle Fonti, Italy. He did electrical work on the city’s L trains.
The Novellis had eight children. The first two, Mary and Ann, died before they were toddlers, possibly from flu, Ron Mantegna said.
So “My mother was named after her two sisters who passed away,” said Joe Mantegna.
She attended Manley High School. In the 1930s, she worked at a nut processing company with her friend Nora Mantegna, whose parents were from Calascibetta, Sicily. Nora’s brother, Joseph Mantegna, needed a date for the wedding of their sister Pauline. Nora fixed her brother up with Maryann Novelli.
Though the Novellis and Mantegnas had similar immigrant stories, there was some wariness in that era between people from Italy and those from the island of Sicily, according to Joe Mantegna. When his father rang Maryann Novelli’s doorbell, “They wouldn’t answer, because they didn’t approve at first till they got to know him,” he said.
But the Novellis would embrace Joseph Mantegna. In the late 1930s, the couple married at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington. They lived on the Near West Side.
During World War II, she worked at a “Rosie the Riveter” job, operating a drill press to make artillery shells, Joe Mantegna said. The shells wound up on the USS Enterprise, where her brother Jack was a Marine aide to Admiral William Halsey, according to Ron Mantegna.
Her brothers Willy, Tony and Joe Novelli Jr. served in Europe. Tony was shot down over Italy. As local villagers advanced on him, they were stunned to hear the American pilot shout “Don’t shoot!” in fluent Italian. She and her family mourned when they received a telegram reporting he was missing. Weeks later, Ron Mantegna said, the Novellis rejoiced when they learned he was a prisoner of war.
Mrs. Mantegna’s husband, an employee of Metropolitan Life Insurance, suffered from tuberculosis and lost a lung to the disease. He spent much of World War II in a Metropolitan Life TB sanitarium on Mount McGregor in New York state. “My mother had to work,” Joe Mantegna said. Ron often baby-sat for his younger brother, feeding him cheese sandwiches while they watched Cubs games on TV.
Mrs. Mantegna worked as a shipping clerk at Sears’ Homan Avenue location and moved in with her parents at 3412 W. Flournoy. After her husband returned from the sanitarium, the Mantegnas eventually moved to Bellwood, and later, to 1816 S. 50th in Cicero. Joe got his acting start in theater productions at Morton East High School. Ron went into marketing and advertising for Montgomery Ward.
At 16, when Joe asked for his birth certificate to get his driver’s license, Mrs. Mantegna made a confession. She’d had Ron doctor his brother’s birth certificate — moving up his birthday from Nov. 13 to Nov. 10 — so Joe could get into kindergarten a year early. “I had to go back to work at Sears,” she told him.
Suddenly, he understood why he was always the smallest kid in his class.
Her husband stayed with Metropolitan Life until the ravages of TB forced him to go on disability around 1955. He died at 58. She worked until retiring at 65.
She enjoyed traveling with Joe Mantegna’s mother-in-law, Marie Vrehl, who was laid out in September in the same funeral parlor where Mrs. Mantegna’s wake was held, Hursen Funeral Home in Hillside.
Mrs. Mantegna made mouthwatering Italian meals. Her meatball recipe is served at Taste Chicago, a restaurant owned by Joe and his wife Arlene Mantegna in Burbank, California.
Her brothers and another sister, Lollie, died before her. She is also survived by four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.