Tony Dinos fed generations of hungry people, politicians and White Sox fans and players at his Ramova Grill in Bridgeport, a greasy spoon fragrant with his famed chili’s secret spices — of which his family will divulge just one: cinnamon.
Mr. Dinos, who had lung cancer, died Wednesday. He was 77.
He was from the Greek island of Amorgos. In his final hours, his wife and three children soothed him with its memory, telling him, “Go back to Amorgos. Go find your mother and father. Go lie on the beach, and eat figs all day long.”
For more than half a century, he dished up belly-filling food at the diner at 3510 S. Halsted — beef stew, pork tenderloin and chop suey, fried perch on Fridays, juicy burgers and a “Good Morning Special” of eggs, meat, hash browns and toast.
If homeless people lingered at the door, he’d slip them sandwiches and coffee. He’d give neighbors, waitresses and customers the extra tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and green beans he grew in his backyard on the city’s Southwest Side. He helped buy a home in Athens for his three sisters. And he’d donate money to his church in Amorgos so there’d be lamb for religious feast days.
His daughter Lori Sirounis, who worked three years at the Ramova, said, “Not once did I see him be angry at a worker or customer.”
He found his calling on a Greek cargo ship. His father died when he was 14, so young Tony had to help support his mother, sisters and little brother. He started sailing on freighters.
“He would help out in the [ship’s] kitchen,” said his son Mark. “That’s where he discovered his love of cooking.”
He arrived in America about 1960. That’s when his birth name, Tony Sinodinos, was shortened by an immigration official.
He took a train to Chicago, where his uncle Pete Gertos ran the Ramova.
He started out washing dishes. Looking out the window one day, he saw a beautiful Greek-American girl, Liberty Sfondeles.
“I saw her go by and smile,” he said in a 2012 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “I asked her friend, ‘That girl involved with anyone?’ She say, ‘No.’ I asked how I can meet her.”
Introductions were arranged through her mother Lambrene Sfondeles and Lambrene’s friend Georgia Antonopoulos. The two women sat behind them on their first date — at the Ramova theater next door to the grill. They got married two months after they met in 1965.
Mr. Dinos worked his way up to cook and eventually co-owned the diner with Pete’s nephew Bob Gertos.
The mustachioed chili master worked six days a week. He’d leave home at 3:30 a.m. The Ramova opened at 5, and he had to prepare daily specials.
“He used to come home late at night,” said his daughter Georgia Shizas. Her mother “would have food ready for him on the table, and she’d have a tub of warm water to soak his feet.”
At one point, when his son was slacking off in college, his father had him work the grill, a move Mark said convinced him to focus on his studies.
“It was broiling hot,” he said. “Waitresses were calling in more orders. I think I went into an anxiety attack. I tried to flip the eggs, and I kept breaking the yolks. I turned to look at my dad, and my face was, like, ‘Help me.’
“He pushed me aside, and, within two minutes, all the orders were cleared.”
Mr. Dinos’ customers included members of Chicago’s former first family, the Daleys. In a Facebook post, Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley said, “Tony was loved and appreciated by all the customers at the Ramova Grill.”
When the Ramova’s 2012 closing was imminent, the Cook County Board commended the restaurant for “what many believe is simply the best chili in Chicago.”
Though he had survived heart failure, loss of a kidney and a bout 20 years ago with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, “He would always tell me he would keep fighting for me,” said his wife.
His work ethic was so strong that, 12 hours before he died, he proclaimed he was going to climb out of bed.
His lawyer-son told him, “Dad, as your attorney, I’m advising you to lie back down.” Everyone laughed. “It was this special moment we had,” said Georgia Shizas.
In addition to his wife, children and five grandchildren, Mr. Dinos is survived by his sisters Maria Kariotis, Irene Maragos and Sofia Argiri.
Visitation is 4 p.m. to 9 .m. Sunday with prayers at 7 p.m. at Palos Gaidas Funeral Home in Palos Hills, with the funeral at 10 a.m. Monday at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Palos Hills.
His family said Mr. Dinos left them with these last words: “Thank you for everything.”