Nello Ferrara was a singer who liked to serenade people.
But to snackers with a sweet tooth, he was better known as the inventor of spicy-hot Atomic FireBalls and lip-puckering Lemonheads.
Mr. Ferrara, the chairman of Chicago’s Ferrara Pan Candy Co., died Friday at his home in River Forest at age 93.
The company produces treats including Red Hots, Black Forest Gummy Bears, Boston Baked Beans and Jawbusters.
Mr. Ferrara came up with the idea of spicy-hot Atomic FireBalls in 1954, after serving in Occupied Japan in the post-atom bomb era, according to his son, company CEO Salvatore Ferrara II.
Nello Ferrara was a young attorney when he worked on a U.S. Army war crimes tribunal in Tokyo. He often saw the jut-jawed, hard-charging General Douglas MacArthur.
“They worked in the same building,” Salvatore Ferrara II said. His father told him the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers “was his own man. You did what he said, and that was it. He was pretty stern.”
Nello’s father, the original Salvatore Ferrara – who was from the Rome-Naples region – founded the company in Chicago in 1908, selling the candy-coated almonds known as “confetti” that signify good luck at Italian weddings.
Mr. Ferrara grew up around Halsted and Taylor Street. When he was 7 or 8, “They used to have tour buses that would go down Taylor Street and show the tourists the old Italian neighborhood,” his son said. “He would stand by the door of the bus and he would start to sing. Every day he would make a dollar or two. He would sing old Italian songs, ‘O Sole Mio.’ ”
He had to repeat first grade “because they said he didn’t speak English well enough,” his son said. But Mr. Ferrara went on to attend St. Ignatius College Prep and DePaul University law school.
After the war, he returned home and practiced law. “My mother was a legal secretary working for another lawyer,” said his daughter, Nella Davy. “One day he went over there to pick up a brief that she was typing and he just fell in love with her.” He and Marilyn were wed 63 years.
Mr. Ferrara joined the family business, where he developed Lemonheads in 1962. He joked he came up with the idea because his son was born with a head shaped like a lemon.
The company grew to employ an estimated 800 people. It produces about 1 million pounds of candy a year at several plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Its flagships are in Bellwood and Forest Park.
In his free time, Mr. Ferrara enjoyed playing cards and golfing at Ridgemoor Country Club. But his lifelong passion was singing.
In fact – after a few duets with Frank Sinatra – he deemed himself the better singer, his son said.
Mr. Ferrara helped build Villa Scalabrini nursing home, where the then-Italo-American residents would be treated to shows by stars like Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
As a result of the Villa Scalabrini shows, “he sang with Frank Sinatra out in Palm Springs a couple of times,” Salvatore Ferrara II said.
Family meant everything to him. “He would call his kids and his grandkids to tell them how much he loved them and how much he missed them, and how he couldn’t wait to see them again,” his son said.
Mr. Ferrara often phoned his daughter Nella at another family business, the Ferrara bakery, to serenade her with “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
“I’d say [to a customer] ‘Sweetie, can you just give me a minute? I can’t tell my dad not to sing to me,’ ” she said.
“If somebody was having a birthday at a restaurant, even when he couldn’t walk anymore – he’d have a cane and a walker – he’d get up and say ‘Excuse me, can I sing to you?’ and he’d sing them Happy Birthday,” she said.
His Sundays were reserved for big Italian family dinners, complete with “macaroni and gravy” – pasta and sauce. “If you were in town,” his son said, “You better be there.”
“He was an icon in the industry,” said Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association. “He was known for helping out other candy companies in distress, for cementing deals with just a handshake, and for being a great ambassador for the industry.”
He was well-liked by employees. One even named his son “Nello” after him, Salvatore Ferrara II said.
“He guided Ferrara Pan Candy Company through good times and bad and helped candy makers of all stripes whenever asked,” said Patrick J. Huffman of Warrell Corp., a candy contractor. “Every visit with Nello was filled with laughter and singing.”
Mr. Ferrara had a fondness for white shoes, no matter the season. He will be buried in a black Armani suit – and white shoes.
He is also survived by his daughter Serajean Aliota; his sister, Florence Stillo, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Visitation is at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd., with a 12:30 p.m. funeral mass. Entombment is to follow at Queen of Heaven Cemetery.