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Hugo Caffarini, owner of Steger’s beloved Dari Whip ice cream shop, dies at 92

Dolores and Hugo Caffarini inside Dari-Whip, on Chicago Road in Steger. | Provided

Positive mental attitude. That’s how Hugo Caffarini lived and the greatest lesson he taught his sons.

It was also the credo of the work environment he created at Steger’s beloved Dari Whip soft-serve ice cream shop, which Mr. Caffarini ran with his wife, Dolores, until 1996. He provided first jobs to hundreds of south suburban teens, becoming a second father to many.

Despite adversity, Mr. Caffarini saw every glass as half-full, friends and family say. At 15, his father died, leaving him the family’s primary breadwinner. He later dropped out of Chicago Heights’ Bloom High School to join the Army Air Forces, serving in Okinawa during World War II.

His oldest son, Gary, died in 1989 at 37; a grandson, Matthew, died shortly after birth.

Mr. Caffarini, 92, died July 27 at Beecher Manor nursing home after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s.

“My father never lost his love for life,” said his son Mark Caffarini. “He was a fighter. When he could no longer speak, all he could do was whistle, so he would roll himself down the hallways and just whistle and wave.”

After becoming the first in his family to get a college degree (in accounting from Roosevelt University) Caffarini worked as an accountant at the Elisabeth Ludeman Center, which provides housing and medical care to the developmentally disabled.

He also ran his own tax practice for 45 years until dementia made it impossible. Mark said his father would “charge out of the goodness of his heart” — maybe just $20 from those who couldn’t afford more. If a check bounced, well, he’d let it slide.

Hugo Caffarini outside St. Liborius Church in Steger. | Provided
Hugo Caffarini outside St. Liborius Church in Steger. | Provided

Mr. Caffarini attended 6 a.m. Mass every day and served for years as head usher at Steger’s St. Liborius Church. He was secretary of the local Kiwanis Club; Mark said, even into his eighties, his dad would drive his wife crazy by standing outside the Steger Kmart and ringing the donation bell for hours.

But Mr. Caffarini is best known as face of Dari Whip, his pride and joy. There was also a Dairy Queen in Steger when Mr. Caffarini and his wife bought Dari Whip in 1968, but Dari Whip, on Chicago Road, offered something Dairy Queen didn’t: four flavors of soft-serve. Besides chocolate and vanilla, Dari Whip had strawberry and Mr. Caffarini’s pet project, lemon sherbet.

He was always tinkering with the sherbet to ensure perfect flavor and consistency. Toni Presley, who worked at Dari Whip for nine summers, said it was tart but “wouldn’t make you pucker.”

“When he sold the Dari Whip, supposedly he sold the recipe for the lemon sherbet,” Presley said, but she added: “I don’t think it tastes anything like the old lemon sherbet. Nobody can replicate it.”

Presley said Dari Whip, was a “pretty happening place,” with lines out to the street when it opened each day. Mark said it was a popular date spot, as well as a regular stop on prom night: it was pre-prom ritual for Dari Whip employees to “say hello to Mr. and Mrs. C” and show off their suits and dresses on the way to the dance.

Presley said the family environment made Dari Whip “the best job she’d ever had.” Working in the tiny three-window walk-up, the staff would become quite close; many dated, and one pair of former employees got married.

Hugo and Dolores Caffarini outside Dari-Whip in Steger. | Provided
Hugo and Dolores Caffarini outside Dari-Whip in Steger. | Provided

The Caffarinis would drive workers home at the end of the night, if needed — and, if it had been a particularly lucrative evening, take everybody out for pizza. When an employee needed dental work but couldn’t afford it, Mr. Caffarini paid.

An old-school gentleman with no daughters of his own, Mark said Mr. Caffarini could be quite protective of female employees.

“He had a lot to say when their boyfriends came to the Dari Whip,” Mark said. “He would say whether he approved or disapproved.”

After a full day as an accountant, Mr. Caffarini would grab dinner, then work at Dari Whip until midnight. Despite those long hours, Presley said, she never saw him get mad at a customer. The consummate extrovert talked jovially to anyone and frequently stayed open past the official closing time until everyone was served.

When he did get home, Mark said, he sometimes stayed up even later, helping him with his math homework.

But his greatest love was his wife, who died in 2016. Mike Caffarini recalled his dad would declare: “Of all the men she could have chosen, she chose me. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Added Mark: “He would always say to my mom, ‘I want to live forever,’ and she would ask, ‘Why? You won’t know anybody.’ But he just loved people.”

Besides Mark and Mike, he is survived by a third son, Dave; a brother, Geno Caffarini; and three grandchildren.