On the corner of Cicero and Hutchinson in the city’s Portage Park neighborhood, the bright green awning of Roma’s Italian Beef & Sausage marks the spot where Ron Sommario staked his claim thirty-five years ago. Today, he is behind the counter cheerfully issuing commands to his team of three employees. He addresses each with a gentle, patriarchal affection, even the one who just started and still “needs a little breaking in.” After making all the necessary arrangements, he vacates his post and heads over to a line of stools facing a picture window with a view of the heavy traffic on Cicero Avenue. “Now where are my glasses?” he asks, looking everywhere save for the counter in front of him where they sit. “Oh,” he says and picks them up with a wink, displaying a bit of that irresistible colloquial charm unique to the stalwarts of Chicago’s older neighborhoods.
Years ago, Sommario’s parents owned a hot dog stand on Taylor Street—so the business, one might say, is in his blood. “Yeah but my kids want no part of it,” he laughs. “They’ve all got decent jobs.” Don’t get him wrong—Sommario loves this place. It’s just that the demands of running a business, in conjunction with his hands-on approach, have proved to be all-consuming. “I guess you could say I’m a control freak,” he admits, “but I’m getting better. I even take vacations now.” But even vacations entail a fair amount of work. Sommario explains: “I like to do everything myself. I mean other people can do it, but if I’m here, I’m doin’ it. So if I go on vacation, I prepare everything that I can beforehand. I’ll mix all the spices so I know that they’re exactly how I want ‘em while I’m gone.” That level of personal attention pervades every aspect of Roma’s. From the fries (“I peel my own potatoes and they go in their own special fryer”) to the spices (“I get them all from my daughter who works up in Wisconsin”) to the slicing (“There’s a way to do it and that’s how I do it”), if it’s being done, it’s being done Sommario’s way.
He serves me an Italian beef prepared exactly the way he eats them—easy gravy with sweet and hot peppers. Juicy but not soggy, spicy but not searing hot, the sandwich possesses the perfect balance of those components that make an Italian Beef what it should be. (Sarah Nardi)
Roma’s Italian Beef & Sausage, 4237 North Cicero, (773)725-5715