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Deli owner Sam Creinin dies at 100

Sam Creinin, a lifelong baseball fan, lived to be 100 and saw the Cubs win the World Series. | family photo

Sam Creinin was in his 60s when he starred in a national pickle commercial. Well into his 80s, he could whip up massive trays of kugel for the Jewish holidays. He drove till he was 99. In November, he cast a ballot for “his girl:” Hillary Clinton. And though the great sadness of his life was outliving his wife and two daughters, he had a wide circle of friends, many of them three or four decades younger.

He owned two Chicago-area Jewish delis and worked in others. Starting out, the son of Russian immigrants had to teach himself how to slice lox and meats and how to make soups, platters and kugels. “He knew what would sell,” said his niece Bonnie Creinin.

Like a good dill pickle, he had a winsome tartness. He’d joke about his age-related infirmities, saying, “I’m not just an old man. I’m an old-old man.”

In the 1970s, Sam Creinin was “discovered” and appeared in this commercial for Vlasic pickles. | Supplied photo
In the 1970s, Sam Creinin was “discovered” and appeared in this commercial for Vlasic pickles. | Supplied photo

Mr. Creinin died at Brandel Care Center in Northbrook on Dec. 18, two months short of his 101st birthday.

Even in his later years, he remained engaged and resilient. When he went out to eat, it would take 20 minutes to get Mr. Creinin to his table because he kept stopping to chit-chat with other patrons.

“So,” he’d say, “do you like what you’re eating? Is it good?” Sometimes he’d ask: “So how old do you think I am?”

In 1946, he and his brother Al opened Creinin’s Unique deli at 53rd and Harper. The Hyde Park fixture drew University of Chicago professors, neighborhood residents, politicians, judges and police officers. Muhammad Ali was a patron when he was still Cassius Clay. Judge Richard Gumbel dropped by for a nosh with his sons, future broadcasters Greg and Bryant Gumbel. Actor Mandy Patinkin stopped in.

“A lot of deals were done there,” said his grand-nephew, Arnie Creinin, who credits his uncle for influencing his career. He became a chef at the Kahler Inn & Suites in Rochester, Minnesota, and executive chef of Florida’s Hilton Sandestin resort.

Thanks to his uncle, Arnie Creinin learned there was a right way for everything, from slicing a pickle (“You cut it right down the center and you take each side and you slice it into quarters,”) to sweeping a floor. (“You always start from the corners and sweep into the center.”)

“He was a great teacher,” his grand-nephew said.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Creinin and his nephew Jerry opened another Unique deli in Homewood. A couple years later, Sam and his wife, Ruthe, moved north. He worked at Fannie’s deli in Lincolnwood.

“It was there he was discovered by the Vlasic Pickle people,” his niece said. The commercial featured real deli workers who raved about the crisp flavor of Vlasic pickles. His line? “Deli dills from Vlasic taste like they came right out of the barrel!”

Sam Creinin (left) and his brother Harry served in World War II. | family photo
Sam Creinin (left) and his brother Harry served in World War II. | family photo

Later, he worked the counter at Kaboff’s in Northbrook. “Many of his vendors and North Side customers followed him,” his niece said.

Young Sam grew up in Humboldt Park and went to Marshall High School. In World War II, he served in the Army. He met his wife at his Hyde Park deli, his niece said. When a lovely young woman stopped in to order, another “counterman” told him: “ ‘You’re a fool, Sam, if you don’t ask her out.’ And so he did.”

They had two daughters, Shelly and Rhonda. Shelly, who had health problems and episodes of dizziness, slipped into a coma in 1977. She died 20 years later. Three months after his daughter’s death, his wife died. Their other daughter Rhonda had an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. For many years until her death in 2008, Mr. Creinin cared for her at home himself. “What got him through was his very large and supportive network of family and friends, his love of music and, I think in many ways, his being at heart someone who was optimistic about life,” his niece said.

Despite his losses, he remained gregarious and kind, and he always dressed neatly, according to his friends and family. While living in Homewood, he installed two washers and two dryers in the Creinin house so his wife could do two loads at a time and halve her trips up and down stairs.

Sam Creinin met his wife Ruthe at his Hyde Park deli, Creinin’s Unique. | family photo
Sam Creinin met his wife Ruthe at his Hyde Park deli, Creinin’s Unique. | family photo

His wise advice earned him the nickname Yoda, said Bob Schwartz, a Vienna Beef senior vice president. Once, he heard Mr. Creinin praise a mechanic skilled at detecting car problems just by sounds, saying: “It’s like being a musician who has an ear for music.”

“He was a lot of fun,” Schwartz said. “He was like a father figure and he always had something nice to say about people.”

“Sammy was really kind of a grandfather figure for me,” said Dave Peterson, who was a UIC college student when he worked alongside Mr. Creinin at Fannie’s deli in the early 1980s. His energy level and work ethic were so strong, “He’d be there at 5 o’clock in the morning getting things ready.”

Mr. Creinin loved the voices of Sarah Brightman, Perry Como and tenor Richard Tucker. One of his fondest memories was listening to Tucker sing the Kol Nidre prayer at a local synagogue. He also enjoyed the operas Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Services have been held.

Young Sam Creinin (front left, in glasses) was born in America to immigrants from Mogilev in what is now Belarus. In front row, to Sam’s right, are his father Jacob and brother Harry. Standing rear, left to right: his brothers Max and Al and their mother
Young Sam Creinin (front left, in glasses) was born in America to immigrants from Mogilev in what is now Belarus. In front row, to Sam’s right, are his father Jacob and brother Harry. Standing rear, left to right: his brothers Max and Al and their mother Bessie. | family photo