Some Heroes Wear Aprons

Some Heroes Wear Aprons

Youth, coworkers, and visitors to our home may have noticed two familiar faces greeting them in the cafeteria lately. They are the faces pictured on a plaque that now hangs on the wall just outside the kitchen at our boys home and honors our long-time friends John and Janet Nitti.

“Every day, every person who goes through the food line will see what our dear friends have done for all of us at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls,” said Fr. Scott.

John and Janet Nitti are the owners of Isola Foods, Inc., a leading U.S. importer and distributor of specialty food and gourmet products. The Nittis have been giving back to our mission since 2008, sharing their love of hearty, home-cooked Italian meals.

Janet Nitti (left) and John Nitti (right) at work in the kitchen at the boy’s home.

Giovanni “John” Nitti was born in 1942 in Valenzano, Bari in southeast Italy. John suffered the loss of his mother at age 3. As a teen with just 50 lire in his pocket, John came to Chicago to live with some of his extended family members. He had planned to study and return to Bari to work at the regional chamber of commerce. However, while living in Chicago John discovered his life’s passion for fine Italian food while helping his cousin at a grocery store in the Italian-American community around Grand and Racine, about a mile north of Mercy Home’s West Loop Campus.

In 1962, John opened Nitti Foods, an Italian specialty food store that he operated in the old neighborhood for more than 25 years. The Nitti Foods Company, with John and his wife Janet’s leadership, built strong bonds of lifelong friendships with the many families that arrived each week from Italy and settled in Chicago’s Santa Maria Addolorata Parish. As their customers clamored for more of these culinary connections to their homeland, the Nittis spent years traveling the diverse regions of Italy to bring home the country’s rich variety of authentic artisan foods. Since 1992, Isola Imports has supplied Italian gourmet food products to high-end grocery stores and leading Italian restaurants throughout Chicagoland.

John and Janet Nitti have been proud supporters of many charities and nonprofits for years, particularly organizations that help at-risk children in the Chicago area. On Grand Avenue, John served as president of the Near Northwest Civic Committee which provided tutoring services for youth, sponsored the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops, and sent them to summer camp. John and Janet have been proud supporters of Casa Famiglia Agebeo in Bari, which hosts families of children with leukemia.

Every day, every person who goes through the food line will see what our dear friends have done for all of us at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls.

– Fr. Scott Donahue

John Nitti founded the Cook Italy Foundation with the support of leading chefs of local Italian restaurants, as well as Loyola and Benedictine Universities. In 2008, Cook Italy approached Mercy Home about working closely with our youth to teach them about delicious and healthy Italian food and the cultural traditions behind it. John and Janet brought leading chefs to the Home to teach our young people cooking techniques and a nutritionist from Loyola to provide education about nutrition.

Over the last several years, the Nittis have been a critical part of our annual Mercy Home Heroes Chicago Marathon fundraising efforts by providing and preparing the pre-race pasta dinner to hundreds of Heroes team members. As their work has always been a family affair, the Nittis’ children Jay, Lisa, and Michael have helped fuel our runners at these events as well. Even their grandkids have helped out in the kitchen. More than simply helping the runners “carbo load” before their big run, these events allowed our Heroes team to gather around a table like a family and deepen their shared commitment to helping our young people succeed. Great food, lovingly prepared and enjoyed with others, has a way of cementing the bonds of family and friendship between people. So, it’s safe to say that these events with the Nittis’ contributions have helped fuel the success of our Heroes program.

In addition, John and Janet Nitti have contributed financially to the Home along with their extraordinary food donations. They have encouraged their friends to get involved with our Home’s mission, and they have participated in our live auctions at Ringside by donating trips to Italy and bidding on items. The Nittis also always surprise us at Christmas celebrations with delicious Italian food.

A plaque honoring the Nittis hangs on the wall outside of the boys’ home kitchen.

Two years ago, the Covid pandemic created an acute crisis for so many of our families. The Nittis reached out to Fr. Scott to offer help. John and Janet arranged a donation of 1,000 pounds of pasta and 1,000 jars of pasta sauce from Barilla Foods to be delivered to our families by our Compassionate Care Task Force. Barilla Foods also donated coupons for free pasta and sauce for all the young people and families entrusted to our care, which includes our Residential Programs, Community Care Program and Friends First Program.

“I am deeply grateful for the many ways that these two beautiful, loving people have shared their gifts with our Mercy Home family,” Fr. Scott said. “I cherish their friendship and I always look forward to seeing them whether at Mercy Home or at their home’.

John and Janet are now a fixture at Mercy Home in our cafeteria. There’s no place that represents the heart of our Home more than in our kitchen. We are delighted that youth, coworkers, and visitors who come through our cafeteria can be inspired by the generosity of true heroes to Mercy Home.

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