Mario’s ‘Empire’ role brought him to Chicago, now the singer’s ‘second home’

“It’s a city that I’ll continue to come back and keep visiting and, you know, maybe have some of my own businesses here,” said the star.

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Mario has been hanging out in Chicago since September of last year, when he first arrived for his recurring role on “Empire.”

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Since becoming a series regular on “Empire,” Mario has been spending a lot of time in Chicago — and the singer-actor doesn’t plan on leaving once the final season wraps.

“I stayed in hotels the first couple of months and I was like over it, so I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to get a place here.’ After that, things were a lot more settled for me, I felt at home,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

He’s been out and about the city since September of last year, when he arrived for his recurring role as Devon, a singer Cookie Lyons (Taraji P. Henson) discovers on Instagram, and wants to manage. While he’s not on set, he drives with his two pit bulls — Halle and Bishop — to parks or one of Chicago’s many dog-friendly beaches, and goes out to eat to his favorite Chicago restaurants, including Maple & Ash (which has the pescatarian’s preferred seafood offerings) and Le Colonial.

Things have changed since Mario first spent time in Chicago, back in the early 2000s, when he released the albums “Mario” and “Turning Point” and was touring.

“It’s like my second home, so I have a different relationship with it now. I know more people. ... I’m getting involved with more people on the ground here. … I recognize the expanded part of Chicago now; it’s a lot bigger than I thought it was, and there’s a lot more opportunity here than I thought. ... There’s just a lot more going on than you would realize if you don’t spend time here,” he said.

Another thing he learned about Chicago?

“How quick the seasons change. I came mid- to end of summer and before I knew it, it was already freezing. There’s no interim, there’s no warning signs,” said the singer.


Devon (Mario, left) performs with Treasure (Katlynn Simone) on “Empire” earlier this season.


But Mario doesn’t mind the cold. In fact, he loves this type of weather.

“I grew up shoveling snow and eating snow ice cream … I’m used to it,” said the Baltimore native. As for Halle, his Red Nose pit, not so much. “All she knows is, like, the desert.”

Halle might have to adapt to the cold, because Mario said he won’t be ditching Chicago just because “Empire” is wrapping.

“I definitely feel like I want to keep a place in Chicago … It’s a city that I’ll continue to come back and keep visiting and, you know, maybe have some of my own businesses here whether it be a restaurant or some cool health shop or something like that. Something creative and fun,” he said.

But just because he’s spending more time here doesn’t mean his tastes have changed. The star prefers thin crust pizza over deep dish, and even though he doesn’t eat hot dogs, if he did, toppings would include relish, mustard, jalapeños —and, yes, ketchup.

One thing that remains the same as when “Let Me Love You” came out is that his Chicago fans still love him. He recently sold out two Wintrust Arena shows here while touring his first studio album in 10 years, “Dancing Shadows,” and gets stopped all the time by fans who want him to FaceTime or call their loved ones.

“They feel like they’re a part of your family or something like that — it’s really intimate,” he said.

Right after “Turning Point” came out, Mario had roles in “Step Up” and “Freedom Writers,” which put his acting chops on the map. More recently, Mario starred as Benjamin Coffin III in Fox’s live performance of the Broadway musical “Rent.” Being on “Empire” gives the 33-year-old the chance to show viewers what he can do, wrapped in a perfect little package.

He first saw the show while on tour, which is when he usually catches up on TV.

“From a creative perspective, I thought it was a really cool show for the culture,” he said. “... It gives people such a really close proximity of what it is like to be an artist.”

Mario hasn’t been able to write any of the shows’ music, but he said he really loves some of the songs his character has sung, and could even see some of the music being on a Mario album. One ballad in particular, “Slow Burn,” which Devon sings with Treasure, resonated with the artist.

“It’s a really good song,” he said. “... We’re saying to each other, ‘Let’s let this particular relationship that we’re experiencing have a slow burn, like let’s not rush it, let’s allow it to really build. And whatever it’s going to be, it’s going to be, but let’s at least enjoy what we have now.’ ”

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