When Salvatore Ferrara II was born by forceps, his temporarily misshapen appearance inspired his dad to call the new lip-puckering candy he invented “Lemonheads.”
That was the joke told by family patriarch Nello Ferrara, who invented Lemonheads and Atomic FireBalls at Ferrara Pan Candy Co.
His son Salvatore, who joined the company in the mid-’70s and oversaw strong growth and its acquisition of Black Forest Gummy Bears, died on Thanksgiving Day of esophageal cancer at his Oak Brook home. He was 63.
Mr. Ferrara used his illness to educate people to get checkups, said his daughter, Alana Ferrara. He hadn’t had a cigarette since 1981. Doctors think his cancer was linked to acid reflux, she said.
He was CEO of Forest Park’s Ferrara Pan Candy Co., maker of Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots and Jaw Busters. It merged with Farley’s & Sathers Candy Co. in 2012, after the death of his father, Nello. Now known as Ferrara Candy Company, it is based in Oakbrook Terrace.
His grandfather, the original Salvatore Ferrara, founded the business in 1908 on Taylor Street selling the candy-coated almonds known as “confetti” that symbolize good luck at Italian weddings.
Nello Ferrara created spicy-hot Atomic FireBalls after serving in Occupied Japan in the post-atom bomb era. He developed Lemonheads in 1962, saying he got the idea after his son was born with a head shaped like a lemon.
“When my father was born, my grandfather always said he was too stubborn to come out on his own,” Alana Ferrara said. “They had to use forceps, and he said, ‘My son’s head looks like a lemon.’ ”
“Sal” Ferrara attended Fenwick High School and graduated from Loyola University New Orleans.
After joining the family business, he oversaw a period of steady growth, from about 35 employees and $3.5 million in annual revenue to more than 500 staffers and $300 million in annual revenue, said Tom Polke, president of Ferrara Candy. Mr. Ferrara drove the firm’s 1990s licensing agreement with Black Forest Gummy Bears, Polke said. Eventually, the company bought the brand and expanded it to other assortments and shapes, from Gummy Worms to Gummy Tarantulas, he said.
The merger with Farley “created the largest non-chocolate candy company in the United States,” Polke said.
In 2011, Forest Park Police responded to a call about a dispute at company headquarters over the direction of the business. Mr. Ferrara was briefly booted and then reinstated, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. He characterized it to Crain’s as a family disagreement.
Mr. Ferrara enjoyed spending time in Naples, Florida, where authorities alleged in March that he took a swing at a female relative in a dispute at a restaurant. “It was a very animated argument” misinterpreted by a bystander, Polke said. “Everything got dropped.”
Mr. Ferrara stayed with the business until March, when he stepped down and joined Haribo, a German candy company. “He was working, really up until the last month,” Polke said.
In his free time, “He drove a red Ferrari and he loved to go out on his boat,” his daughter said.
The boat’s name?
Mr. Ferrara also is survived by his wife, Andrea; another daughter, Lauren Houder; his son, Nello II; a stepson, Erik Hall; his sisters, Serajean Alioto and Nella Davy, and three grandchildren.
His visitation and funeral Mass were held Monday at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd. Mr. Ferrara is to be entombed in a mausoleum at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside. The relatives who were his pallbearers were shod in the same Tod’s blue suede shoes that he loved and wore in his casket.