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Rudy Malnati Jr., member of Chicago pizza dynasty, director of Air and Water Show, dead at 65

He died Christmas Eve at his Lake Forest home after a five-year battle with gallbladder cancer, his wife said.

Restaurateur Rudy Malnati in 2006 with a thin-crust pizza at Pizano’s, 61 E. Madison St.
Restaurateur Rudy Malnati in 2006 with a thin-crust pizza at Pizano’s, 61 E. Madison St.
Sun-Times file

Rudy Malnati Jr.’s last name is recognizable to any pizza-loving Chicagoan.

His father, Rudy Malnati Sr., became a pizza authority while working at Pizzeria Uno, which claims credit for inventing the city’s iconic deep-dish pies in 1943.

His mother, Donna Marie, was the doughmaker extraordinaire behind the family’s creations.

His half-brother, Lou Malnati, created Lou Malnati’s.

And Rudy Jr. founded Pizano’s.

The family was a pizza dynasty, and Rudy Malnati Jr. was proud to carry on his family’s legacy.

But if there was room for another passion, his was the Chicago Air and Water Show, which he directed for 30 years.

“It was his baby,” his wife Annette Malnati said Saturday.

Mr. Malnati died Christmas Eve at his Lake Forest home after a five-year battle with gallbladder cancer, his wife said. He was 65.

Rudy Malnati Jr. with his daughter Holly, wife Annette and son Rudy in 2017.
Rudy Malnati Jr. with his daughter Holly, wife Annette and son Rudy in 2017.
Provided photo

He attended every Air and Water Show since its creation in 1959, his wife said. As a boy, he would marvel at the display and later ran errands for the man who directed it before succeeding him in the job under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Knowing this year’s show was likely his last, Mr. Malnati scaled back his chemotherapy treatments to help ensure he would have enough energy to help plan the event.

Through the last two years of his illness, when the cancer progressed to stage four, he never stepped away from his work.

Mr. Malnati also had coordinated air shows in Milwaukee, Gary, Ind., and Rockford. He was so respected by the pilots, his name so synonymous with the events, that he was made an honorary member of the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force’s Thunderbirds.

Shocked by his death because he had kept his diagnosis a secret, team members of the two squadrons reached out to his wife one by one to offer their condolences, she said.

“He chose not to make it known because that wasn’t his focus,” Annette Malnati said. “He didn’t have time for people to feel bad for him or the pity party.

“The Chicago Air and Water Show is his legacy,” she said. “He’s the reason that Chicago has that show. He’s always been the one behind the scenes, which is great because he didn’t need to be in the limelight.”

The Malnati family gathers at its newest restaurant, Amigos, in September 2021.
The Malnati family gathers at its newest restaurant, Amigos, in September 2021.
Provided photo

A baseball encyclopedia and softball league overseer during his time with the Chicago Park District, Mr. Malnati also made close friends among the Major League Baseball umpires fraternity. Umps would visit Pizano’s while in town and flew in for his mother’s funeral.

“The multitude of friendships that he has and the people he’s impacted over his lifetime, it’s just incredible,” Annette Malnati said. “People from all different industries are just reaching out and saying, ‘No, this can’t be.’ ”

Mr. Malnati was proud of his family’s deep-dish history but also found gratification in his own thin-crust pie at Pizano’s — despite his mother’s insistence that her celebration of life not feature “that damn thin-crust pizza,” which she helped create.

He often worked long hours, his wife said, but he made sure not to miss one of his kids’ performances or important family events. Even as cancer took its toll on him, he’d be sure to take part over Zoom.

“I’ve never had more fun with someone,” Annette Malnati said. “Chicago’s going to miss out on him because he is a true Chicagoan.”

Mr. Malnati’s father died in 1974. His brother Robert Malnati and half-brother Lou Malnati also died before he did. He’s survived by Annette and his children Holly and Rudy.

Visitation is scheduled for Wednesday at the Donnellan Family Funeral Home in Skokie. A funeral Mass will be held Thursday at Holy Name Cathedral.

Contributing: Bob Chiarito