Lou Ragusi, whose Capt’n Nemo’s submarine sandwich shops fed generations, has died at 88

Forty-eight years after he opened the first one in Rogers Park, the menu is nautical-themed, largely unchanged and includes two liverwurst sandwiches with ‘a small but maniacally devoted following.’

SHARE Lou Ragusi, whose Capt’n Nemo’s submarine sandwich shops fed generations, has died at 88
Lou Ragusi at Capt’n Nemo’s in 1976.

Lou Ragusi at Capt’n Nemo’s in 1976.

Sun-Times files

In 1971, Lou Ragusi opened Capt’n Nemo’s, a restaurant that promised customers “A Whale of a Sub.”

The Army veteran used to joke about how he came up with his restaurant’s name. “I couldn’t get my rank in the service,” he’d say. “So I bought it.”

Since then, Capt’n Nemo’s has served hundreds of thousands of sandwiches at the original Rogers Park location at 7367 N. Clark St. and at a satellite in Winnetka.

Forty-eight years after he founded it, the menu is largely unchanged. Hearty perennials include the Seafarer, a tuna sub with sliced hard-boiled eggs and “CSS” — Captain’s Secret Sauce — and the South Sea Sub, a ham-salami-American cheese combo with pineapple dressing. There also are two liverwurst sandwiches, the Conqueror and the Spectacular, with “a small but maniacally devoted following,’’ according to Mr. Ragusi’s son Steve.

Mr. Ragusi died Nov. 18 at Evanston Hospital. He was 88 and had pancreatic cancer, according to his son.

The restaurant’s nautical theme is catchy. But people come back for the subs, billed as “More Meat than Bread!”

His wife Lidia, known as “Mrs. Nemo,” would make the soups and chili. Mr. Ragusi would hand out tastes to waiting customers, who often drained the sample cups, then ordered the hearty split pea, navy bean, barley, minestrone and lentil soups.

Even in his later years, when his son began taking over, Mr. Ragusi couldn’t stay away from work. “I used to say, ‘Daddy, you can go on vacation,’ ” Steve Ragusi said. “And he would say, ‘I am on vacation.’ ”

Wearing a cap with “starboard” and “port,” Lou Ragusi holds a giant submarine sandwich from his restaurant, Capt’n Nemo’s.

Wearing a cap with “starboard” and “port,” Lou Ragusi holds a giant submarine sandwich from his restaurant, Capt’n Nemo’s.

Provided photo

Mr. Ragusi was born in the Chicago area at the height of the Depression. His parents were Italian immigrants from the province of Teramo in the Abruzzo region. His father Michael worked at the Winnetka power plant. His mother Erminia was a homemaker. Young Lou went to Sacred Heart grade school and New Trier High School but left before graduating to go to work, his son said.

His first job was as a delivery driver for Homer’s Ice Cream in Winnetka. After serving as a welder in the Army during the Korean War era, he studied cooking at the old Washburne Trade School and found work in the kitchen at the Palmer House hotel, his son said.

In 1954, he married Lidia Lattanzi, who, like his parents, came from Abruzzo.

“Daddy joked that Gramps wouldn’t give him the car unless he was going out with a good Italian girl, so he went out with my mom to get the car,” his son said.

Mr. Ragusi landed a job at the Hartford Plaza downtown and rose to be general manager of the restaurant complex there, which included the New England-themed Connecticut Room, the English Room and the French Room.

“It was a very big operation Daddy ran,” his son said.

When he opened his sub shop, he named it Capt’n Nemo’s for the submarine-seafaring character in Jules Verne’s books. Business grew with good reviews and savvy promotion. In 1989, when the 708 area code was introduced for some of the Chicago suburbs, “We made a 59-foot sub with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America because that was 708 inches,” his son said. “Then, the kids ate it.”

A third location on Ashland Avenue in Lakeview closed this year, according to the son, because of the cost of bringing the restaurant into compliance with city codes.

Mr. Ragusi fed generations at the original Rogers Park location, including hungry high school kids from Sullivan, St. Scholastica, Evanston Township and Loyola Academy, college students from Loyola and Northwestern universities and workers from S&C Electric.

And his secret sauce has been shipped to devotees all over the United States, his son said, including Alaska.

In addition to his wife Lidia and son Steve, Mr. Ragusi is survived by his daughter Sandra Ragusi Diaz, sons Mark and Michael and four grandchildren. Services have been held.

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