One of nine siblings, Luigi “Lou” or “Louie” Cardone, emigrated to Chicago from Ceglie del Campo, Italy in 1955 with his family. After settling on Taylor Street in Little Italy, the Cardone family made their way to Galewood to put down roots. Surely pasta graced the large Italian family’s table on a regular basis, but Lou made an unlikely business leap later in life that would leave a long-lasting mark on the Oak Park culinary community.
One fateful day in 1984, he received a tip that the owners of the Onion Roll were looking to sell. Lou and his brother Johnny jumped at the chance to take over the combined deli/restaurant and the unlikely adventure of “two Italian guys” running a Jewish deli began. The Cardone brothers left an indelible mark on the North Avenue deli for 30 years.
Forest Park resident Deborah Holdstein, a longtime regular at the Onion Roll who has seen the business through ownership transitions over the years, looked back fondly on the three decades Lou and Johnny helmed the humble establishment.
“When Lou ran the the Onion Roll, it was a place where people knew who you were and knew how you liked your coffee,” said Holdstein. “There was a friendly tone in the place that helped make community connections.”
Savoring bialys, bagels and corned beef sandwiches, customers would engage in light-hearted conversations or deep political discussions while dining at the deli. Lou was known to join in the conversations and attempt to “solve the problems of the world.” Although Lou was a Chicagoan with roots in Italy, Holdstein thought there was something very New York about him. He had a no-nonsense personality and was unafraid to throw a few barbs at his regular customers; he gave the impression of being an assertive manager with good instincts about people.
“He’d give me a hard time because he knew he could,” said Holdstein, “but Lou was gentle and sensitive with those who were more vulnerable.”
Lou made connections with many customers during his 30 years of restaurant ownership, but none more significant than the day Judy Amato walked into the Onion Roll in 1988. She had popped in to pick up a tray of lox and bagels for an office meeting and quickly became a regular at the restaurant. Much to her surprise, Lou asked for her phone number.
“I was pretty much instantly in love,” said Judy Cardone. “He gave me yellow roses and that was pretty much it.”
The couple married in 1994 and enjoyed taking 42 cruises during their 31 years together. In 2007, however, Lou’s health took a turn; his kidneys had stopped functioning and doctors recommended dialysis to stabilize his condition. He resisted the idea and that prompted Judy to have herself tested as a living organ donor for her husband. She was not a match because of differing blood types, but her willingness to donate opened the door to a progressive “paired kidney exchange” or “kidney swap.” The couple matched with a mother and daughter with ideal blood types and three months later Judy donated a kidney to the mother and Lou received one from her daughter as part of the Paired Donor Transplant Program at UIC.
“His life was my life,” said Judy tearfully. “He loved me so much, I know he would have done the same thing for me.”
During the years they owned the Onion Roll, he would wake at 3 a.m. every day to pick up donuts and bagels before returning to the restaurant to begin prep for daily service. Around 7:30 he would return home to bring his wife a cup of coffee from the shop and would invariably scribble a love note on the cup.
“This guy is my heart,” sighed Judy, revealing a collection of cups squirreled away in a closet. “Sure, Lou came off as gruff at first, but under it all he was a sentimental guy with a heart of gold.”
Some cups displayed simple messages while others had silly cartoons taped to the side, but one stood out. Scrolled on the disposable cup were the words, “Hi Baby! May your eyes always sparkle. May your smile always shine. I’ll love you always.”
Those who knew him say Lou was a man of integrity, a good person and a better neighbor. During the years he owned the Onion Roll, he was pleased to know his community well and hoped his customers felt as if they were part of his family.
Lou Cardone died at home on May 3, 2019 due to complications from a stroke. He was the father of Jennifer and grandfather of Brandon.
Donations may be made in Lou Cardone’s name to UIC Transplant c/o Dr. Enrico Benedetti, Professor and Head of Surgery.