From Little Italy to Forest Park

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By John Rice

Contributor

 

"Sweet Home Chicago" features a prominent display on Ferrara Pan Candy Co. The Forest Park-based candy giant has been in the news, thanks to its recent merger with Farley's and Sathers. There are fears it may relocate its local manufacturing to Canada or Mexico to take advantage of lower sugar prices. CEO Sal Ferrara II has not issued a statement on the future of the company.

The current chairman is the third generation of the Ferrara family to head the confection business. His grandfather, Salvatore Ferrara, came from Nola, Italy to New York in 1899 at the age of 15. Ferrara had to work off his passage, which had been advanced by a sponsor. He taught himself English and acted as interpreter between Italian laborers and their railroad foremen in Texas.

He returned to Chicago in 1908 to open a bakery at 772 W. Taylor, in the heart of Chicago's "Little Italy" neighborhood. (The Ferrara family had been bakers in the old country.) As a sideline, he sold candy-coated almonds known as "confetti," a popular treat at Italian weddings. When candy surpassed pastries in sales, Ferrara partnered with two brothers-in-law, Salvatore Buffardi and Anello Pagano. They built a two-story brick building at 2200 W. Taylor and began producing a variety of pan candies.

The second floor contained the rumbling revolving kettles that produced the pan candy. All the machines were driven by a giant wheel. There was a hole in the floor for the candy to drop down to the shipping department. Pan candy is produced by putting a hard center in the kettle and adding syrup, flavoring and coloring as the machine revolves. It's a slow, gradual process. It can take 14-19 days to make a batch of jawbreakers.

Salvatore's wife, Serafina, continued to run the bakery in "Little Italy." She became known as the "Angel of Halsted Street."

Her son, Nello Ferrara, obtained his law degree and enlisted in World War II in 1942. He served as a military attorney and oversaw the war crimes trials in Japan in 1946. His visit to that devastated country inspired the creation of Atomic Fireballs in 1954. The hot cinnamon candy was a perfect fit for the Atomic Age. They're still popular, with 15 million consumed weekly.

Inspiration for the Lemonhead came from watching his son Sal being delivered. He was a forceps baby and Salvatore complained that his newborn's head was lemon-shaped. He introduced the mouth-puckering treat in 1962. Ferrara now makes 500 million Lemonheads a year.

Continuing this theme, the company added Melonheads, Appleheads and Grapeheads to their line, along with Jawbreakers, Boston Baked Beans and Red Hots. Demand for the candy caused the company to outgrow the space on Taylor Street and the machinery was moved to a former dairy in Forest Park in 1959.

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