James Eisenberg, who ran Vienna Beef, loved his hot dogs, dead at 92

He knew how to do every job there before he and Jim Bodman bought the Chicago company in 1982. To celebrate, they had steaks — not hot dogs — at Gene & Georgetti.

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James Eisenberg, who was co-chief executive officer of Vienna Beef.

James Eisenberg, who was co-chief executive officer of Vienna Beef.


James Eisenberg was a champion of the Chicago hot dog.

As the head of Vienna Beef, he’d take his late wife Elin to eat at a nice restaurant downtown, but both always saved room for a post-dinner bite at a hot dog joint so he could make sure things were up to snuff.

“That was their dessert,” said Jim Bodman, who for years served as co-chief executive officer of Vienna Beef with Mr. Eisenberg. “It was part of their DNA absolutely and totally.”

“He liked his dog boiled in water with everything on it or ‘walked through the garden,’ as they say — but no ketchup,” said Mr. Eisenberg’s son Jamie Eisenberg, a former Vienna employee. “We had a sales guy who worked for us once, and he put ketchup on his hot dog. He would eat lunch early, and I’m not sure if that’s so Dad wouldn’t catch him or if he was just hungry early.”

Mr. Eisenberg died April 7 at his home in Highland Park from heart issues and lung cancer. He was 92.

He’d get a kick out of seeing people’s eyes light up after learning about his connection to the Chicago culinary staple. But he didn’t go out of his way to seek attention.

“Vienna is a cult thing,” Mr. Eisenberg told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010 for his wife’s obituary after she died following colon surgery. “People who talk about hot dogs or Vienna, they always have stories.

“Even the surgeon who operated on Elin, he sat down and talked to me to explain the operation. He said, ‘What do you do?’ I said I was a sausage-maker. And he said, ‘Oh, I know Vienna Beef. Every time I come to Chicago I go to a hot dog stand before I leave for the airport.’ “

He sent the surgeon a box of hot dogs. The nurses got salami.

“I suppose he could have been ‘Abe Froman’ if he wanted to, but he just didn’t,” Bodman said, referring to the fictional “Sausage King of Chicago” made famous in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Mr. Eisenberg began working at Vienna Beef in 1954 after marrying into the family who owned the company.

Austria-Hungarian immigrant Sam Ladany, his wife’s grandfather, co-founded Vienna Beef after introducing the Chicago-style hot dog to the world at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 — the World’s Fair.

Mr. Eisenberg knew how to do every job in the building before he and Bodman bought the company in 1982. To celebrate, the two friends and now co-owners of the company had steaks — not hot dogs — at Gene & Georgetti.

Jamie Eisenberg said his father had him learn the business from the ground up, just as he’d done.

“I remember I’d be trimming meat off large pieces of cattle in frigid conditions alongside guys built like football players with hooks to sling the meat into vats,” the son said. “Dad never gave me any special treatment. If I got into a tussle, he gave me space to work it out.”

Mr. Eisenberg spoke his mind always. He’d occasionally tell employees things like, “Hey, get a haircut” — a nail-biting experience for his son, who started the company’s human resources department.

“He was from another era,” Jamie Eisenberg said. “But I’d just be, like, ‘Dad, you can’t say things like that anymore.’ ”

Mr. Eisenberg loved to travel and made inroads for Vienna in Japan, England, Hong Kong and Germany.

“He’d find a part of the world where we didn’t sell stuff and say, ‘I’ll see ya later,’ ” Bodman said.

He loved cigars and loud pants, with a different brightly colored pair for every occasion.

“It was hysterical, and he didn’t care what people thought,” his son said. “He just loved life. My parents brought me up Jewish, but he also loved having a Christmas tree So, by God, we had a Christmas tree and celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Mr. Eisenberg was born in Chicago and raised in Winnetka, going to New Trier High School and then Carleton College in Minnesota.

Before working for Vienna Beef, he worked for his father’s business, selling costume jewelry and dresses.

He wasn’t much of a sports fan, didn’t like television except for the news and read a ton, including lots of spy novels. His main hobbies were golf and art. He owned several pieces by celebrated glass artist Dale Chihuly and loved welding scrap metal into art, displaying some of it in his yard.

Mr. Eisenberg is also survived by his grandson Sam. Funeral services have been held. A memorial open to the public is being planned.

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