Show time: Joe and Karen Santelli have a new showroom on Lake Street in River Forest for their business, Santelli Custom Cabinetry, where they allow non-profit organizations to hold events for free after hours.Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

Karen and Joe Santelli have been in the remodeling business for years, acting as general contractors and custom cabinet makers for countless kitchens. With the opening of their new showroom on Lake Street in River Forest, the couple hopes to give back to the community through their humanitarian efforts while continuing to offer the bricks and mortar remodeling work they have built their careers on.

The couple’s new cabinet showroom, Santelli Custom Cabinetry, occupies a central location in River Forest, across the street from St. Luke Parish and next door to florist Tulipia. When the Santellis renovated the space to showcase their custom cabinet line as well as the Wood-Mode line, they carried the renovation straight through the building to the backyard.

A lounge area at the front of the store offers built-in bench seating. Also at the front of the store, islands and cabinetry installed on the white-washed brick walls showcase the Santellis’ work as well as the different types of countertops and hardware they provide. The rear of the store offers a large resin table for client meetings and access to an intimate garden, complete with sculpture and built-in seating.

When they held a gathering to celebrate their grand opening less than a year ago, the Santellis realized their storefront could offer a lot more than a place to showcase their business. According to Karen, the compliments they heard that night were inspiring. “Someone told us what a great party space this was, and we thought, why not offer this space to the community after hours?”

Joe notes that his wife’s background working for non-profits was a motivating factor behind their decision to let such organizations use the showroom rent-free for after-hours fundraisers.

“Karen has worked for many non-profits, so she’s very dedicated to helping out the community. We figured we already pay rent here, and no one was using the space at night, so it seemed like a good way to give back.”

“We were trying to figure out how to serve our community while still keeping our full-time jobs in the cabinetry business,” adds Karen. “We have our first spring gathering planned for a Derby Lite group. They’re going to host a cupcake party here with all proceeds going to the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry. I’m really hoping we can get all kinds of people and organizations in here from schools to artists to someone like a single-mom who might be starting a business and need a little extra push.”

While the calls from community organizations pour in, the Santellis keep busy with their day jobs. The River Forest residents have rehabbed and remodeled many village homes. One of their latest projects, which was featured on HGTV and in Kitchen Trend Magazine, included floor to ceiling African Paduk cabinetry in a reddish-brown hue with a funky island of a handmade Italian veneer called Strawberry Bubinga Burl.

Many of the Santellis’ clients seek them out because of their creativity. In a New Buffalo, Mich., home, the clients wanted an old cottage look for their showcase kitchen. The Santellis built custom, glazed cabinetry for the perimeter of the room with an unusual walnut island and range hood in the center of the space.

The clients wanted a specific, aged look for the home, which Joe says he had to employ some unique methods to achieve. “[They] wanted an old, traditional look in their new kitchen, so we used chains and even burned the walnut wood to create a distressed, antique feel.”

A downtown Chicago client once wanted sleek, plain fronted cherry wood cabinets to compliment her mid-century modern home. The Santellis thought outside the box in creating a separate, concealed area in the kitchen for the client’s dogs to eat out of sight.

Joe is following in his Italian father’s footsteps in making cabinet building his career, and he and Karen also offer general contracting services through D & S Edificio. Clients often first call about a specific cabinet and end up having the Santellis do more work.

“They can rely on us to do everything from foundation work to finish work,” says Joe. “We’ll do a complete bathroom or kitchen remodel or work on an entire house.”

Karen also emphasizes their interest in being available for all types of clients. “We do small, simple projects as well. People have asked us to create a raised vanity for their piano or make a headboard to match existing furniture. With the cabinetry, we have many different options. We can save people money by mixing ready-made boxes with custom doors. Something doesn’t have to be higher-end in price to be high quality.”

Joe chimes in explaining, “Whatever the price point, the quality has to be very good or we won’t do it. We work with good people, including Hank Witt of H & J Designs who does our custom stainless steel hardware and countertops.”

A modern metal sculpture created by Witt graces the outdoor area of the showroom along with fanciful flamingo sculptures from florist Tulipia, which has graciously offered to provide floral arrangements for non-profit benefits held in the space.

The Santellis hope that their making the space available to the community will serve a dual purpose as well. “It’s not all about making money,” says Joe. “Of course, everyone wants to stay in business, but this is about serving the needs of the community and its residents through our business.”

Santelli Custom Cabinetry

  • 7621 Lake St., River Forest
  • If you are interested in using the showroom space for a non-profit, after-hours event, please contact Karen Santelli at 708-771-3884.

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