Everybody ate at Izola’s Restaurant — cops, politicians, judges, Mayor Harold Washington, Count Basie, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright August Wilson.

For over a century, Izola White’s delicious soul food — and the lively customer debates at her Chatham eatery — made it a South Side landmark.

“Everybody was privy to everybody else’s conversations and contributed back and forth, and Izola was like the referee,” said funeral director Spencer Leak Sr. “Not only was the food good, the politics was good.”

Ms. White, who had dementia, died Tuesday at Holy Cross Hospital, said DeWayne Mason, a retired Chicago police officer who served as her guardian. She was 96.

“She’s probably one of the first black restaurant owners in the city of Chicago, and female — that’s a lot back then” when she opened in 1957, Mason said.

In a 1988 interview, she told the Chicago Sun-Times she was born in Kenton, Tennessee, and came to Chicago in 1940. Before opening Izola’s Restaurant at 522 E. 79th St., she worked at a soda fountain at 61st and King Drive, as a waitress at the Vernon-Rhodes restaurant and at Vernola’s eatery on 61st Street.

Izola White, whose Chatham restaurant was a Chicago institution, has died.

Izola White, whose Chatham restaurant was a Chicago institution. | Facebook

Her biscuits were famous. So were her ham hocks and black-eyed peas. She always cooked the ham hocks and peas separately.

“Ham hocks are tough, so they need to cook longer,” she’d say. “I throw salt pork in the black-eyed peas for flavor.”

“I was crazy about the short ribs of beef and the pork chops; greens and sweet potatoes, mac and cheese — the best in the world,” Mason said.

One of her most popular breakfasts was brains-and-eggs.

“We first came to Chatham, and that was 1959, and Izola’s Restaurant was there,” Leak said. “At that time, 79th Street was really busy, one of those South Side streets where there was every kind of business you could think of.”

She hosted regular political fund-raisers at the restaurant and at her nearby home in West Chesterfield.

“I met Obama at one of her parties,” Mason said. “Her restaurant was symbolic of her heart and her caring.”

According to Mason, Ms. White sponsored a number of Little League baseball teams, and, he said, “She loved police.”

Many people got their first jobs at Izola’s.

“She hired people who couldn’t get hired anywhere else,” Mason said. “Maybe they had scars on their life, substance [abuse]. She trained them to cook. She had such a big heart.”

Izola’s Restaurant closed in December 2010, Mason said. Subsequent fund-raisers to help her with bills and allow her to continue to live independently  circulated on social media. Most recently, he said, she lived in a nursing home.

“She was heartbroken and depressed after her store closed,” Mason said. “That was her life. . . . The dementia set in, and she couldn’t go down there anymore and run it.”

Ms. White had been married but was divorced years ago, he said. She had a dog named Button that she loved. And she became a mother figure to many, telling the Sun-Times: “I talk to a lot of kids who come in here and try to get them straight. Just parents talking to them and hugging them and saying, `I love you’ makes a difference a lot of times.”

Visitation is planned from 6 to 9 p.m. April 18 at Leak & Sons Funeral Home, 7838 S. Cottage Grove. A wake is scheduled from 10 a.m. April 19 until the start of an 11 a.m. service at the funeral home.
Izola White in the kitchen at Izola's Restaurant.

Izola White in the kitchen at Izola’s Restaurant. | Sun-Times files