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Jerry ‘Augie’ Morelli founded thriving suburban restaurants

Augie Morelli founded Augustino's Rock and Roll delis in Carol Stream and West Chicago. | Provided photo

Augie Morelli built a thriving restaurant business on ripe tomatoes, mortadella, capicola, salami, provolone cheese and Turano bread — delivered fresh, twice daily — and a vinegar-and-oil dressing he dubbed “Love Potion No. 9.”

He paid attention to details.

When he opened Augustino’s Rock and Roll Deli in West Chicago, he felt the homemade Italian beef — despite identical ingredients and spices — didn’t turn out the same as the beef made at his Augustino’s in Carol Stream. He speculated it might be the water, said his daughter-in-law Cathy Morelli. So, he started preparing the beef at Augustino’s in Carol Stream and had it delivered to West Chicago, a practice that continues to this day.

His delicious meatball recipe came from his mother-in-law, “Nana” Phyllis Concetta Grimaldi of Naples, Italy.

Mr. Morelli, who had emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, died on Feb. 21 at 82 after nearly 40 years in the restaurant business.

His colorful delis feature autographed guitars and rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia. The exteriors resemble giant Wurlitzer jukeboxes. GTOs, Barracudas and ’57 Chevys pull into the restaurants for cruise nights, when patrons lift the hoods, pull up chairs and talk horsepower.

Fans on social media say they don’t go to Augie’s for the flashy decor. They go for the quality of the food and the warmth of the welcome.

Mr. Morelli had a soft spot for kids who were down on their luck, giving them extra food and sometimes shooing their money away if they were short on cash, according to his daughter-in-law. The largesse, she said, might be traced to his childhood growing up in Chicago’s Frances Cabrini Homes, a predecessor to Cabrini-Green.

Augie and Phyllis Morelli worked together at their Augustino’s delis. | Family photo
Augie and Phyllis Morelli worked together at their Augustino’s delis. | Family photo

His father, Alberto, was a barber from Cosenza, Italy. “They were born pretty poor,” Cathy Morelli said. “There was a certain kind of tree, the trees that were always planted outside of the projects. He never liked this particular kind of tree because it grew outside the projects.”

Young Jerry went to St. Mel High School, where he learned to play the trumpet. The skill came in handy when he served in the Army during the Korean War. He and some buddies formed a combo to play for the troops, and Mr. Morelli sometimes escorted headliners on goodwill tours, including Debbie Reynolds.

When he returned home, he worked at Sears’ Homan Avenue headquarters. That’s where his co-worker and future wife first saw him, emerging from an elevator. Phyllis Grimaldi was 18 and he was 21.

“He was my first date, my first love,” she said. Mrs. Morelli said she fell hard “just looking at him. A beautiful blue shirt he had on, and a brown pair of pants. And I was talking with my friend Theresa, and when he walked off the elevator, ‘I said that’s the man I’m going to marry.’ She said ‘You don’t even know him.’ And I said ‘I know him. God gave him my heart.’ ”

They married at St. Mel’s church in 1958. Mr. Morelli saved up his own money for a reception at the Bismarck hotel, now the Allegro. They lived in Austin.

For a time, he worked in a CTA repair shop. They moved to Oak Park and renovated a home. When they sold it, they moved to West Dundee and operated a dry cleaners and a laundromat on Route 31. It was a family affair. Their two children, Jerry and Lisa, worked the counter. Around 1974, in the same strip mall, they opened Morelli’s, a beef stand.

When the dry-cleaning chemicals affected his wife’s health, the Morellis sold all three spots. They took a year off before deciding to focus on the food business. “They were driving around in Carol Stream and [they saw] it had a lot of blue-collar, three-shift workers. They thought they could make a good living,” Cathy Morelli said.

Augie Morelli worked with his son, Jerry, who now owns the delis. | Family photo
Augie Morelli worked with his son, Jerry, who now owns the delis. | Family photo

In 1978, they started the first Augustino’s, a small Italian grocery store that also sold take-out food, near St. Charles and Schmale Roads in Carol Stream. Later, they moved to their current Carol Stream location at 246 S. Schmale Rd. They opened the West Chicago deli at 300 W. North Ave. in 2005.

“He was a natural. He had this joy of being there,” his daughter-in-law said.

Years later, customers from the original Augustino’s would drop by, telling the family that when they were hungry kids without any money, Mr. Morelli would slip them a sandwich or tell them to pay later.

“Maybe because Augie came from someplace really poor and tough, he’d recognize that in kids,” his daughter-in-law said. “He’d say ‘You stay in school now. Don’t wind up making sandwiches like me.’ ”

When kids retorted they could see he was doing well and that he owned his own business, Mr. Morelli would say: “You stay in school so you can do it smarter.’ ’’

Adults who worked at Augustino’s as teens “credit their success in life with the whole work ethic he taught them and just how he treated people,” said his son Jerry, owner of the delis.

He gave many immigrants opportunities to better themselves, said Eli Garcia, 39, a Mexico City native who worked his way up to kitchen manager at the Carol Stream location. “His first words I remember, when I started working for him, was ‘Come work for me. We take care of people like a family,’ ” Garcia said. “I’ve worked 21 years for the family. To me he was the greatest guy in the world.”

Though Mr. Morelli stopped making sandwiches about 17 years ago, he did fix-it jobs at the restaurants. Often, he wore a cap that said “Boss Aug.”

Mr. Morelli also is survived his son-in-law, Matt Reiland; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Visitation is scheduled from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday at St. Michael Catholic Church, 310 S. Wheaton Ave., Wheaton. A funeral mass is to begin at 3 p.m.

Augie and Phyllis Morelli at the center of their family. | Family photo
Augie and Phyllis Morelli at the center of their family. | Family photo