Igor Russo, co-owner of The Onion Roll, 6935 W. North Ave., spent the first 19 years of his life in Kyiv, Ukraine and still has distant relatives in the war-torn country. Earlier this year Russo and his business partner, Ryan Rosenthal, put their bagel bakery to use churning out blue and yellow bagels inspired by the Ukrainian flag and donated 100% of proceeds from the sale of the specialty bagels to the Heroes Protection Fund established through St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. The North Avenue business also distributed Ukrainian flags and partnered with other local restaurants to expand their fundraising reach. Now, the legacy business has brought their mission full circle by staffing their bakery with refugees escaping the violence in their homeland.
Mariana Vats has been in the United States for just three months and now leads bakery operations at The Onion Roll. She came to the United States as part of the Uniting for Ukraine program, a humanitarian effort organized through U.S Citizen and Immigration Services. Program participants must have a beneficiary in the United States and those, like Vats, who are granted travel authorization under Uniting for Ukraine are “paroled” into the United States for up to two years.
“I knew we had to get them out,” said Russo. “We have a family connection to Mariana, but when we came to find out she was a chef everything just fell into place. She taught culinary arts in Ukraine, so all of this is second nature to her.”
Vats and her 18-year-old son fled the violence in Ukraine and took refuge with friends in Turkey for five months before making their way to Oak Park. Her son began working at Rosenthal and Russo’s chiropractic office located next door to the restaurant while Vats made quick work of learning how to make bagels according to the Onion Roll’s exacting standards.
Vats is joined in the bakery by Oksana Pidgorodetska, another Uniting for Ukraine program participant, and Olha Shten who also hails from Ukraine, but has a permanent resident card. Together they churn out up to 900 bagels (depending on demand) in 12 varieties every day. Vats anticipates she and her team are just two weeks away introducing a house-made rye bread program.
Chef Armando Pacheco has been piling corned beef on sandwiches at the Onion Roll for 29 years and this will be the first time he will have an in-house bread program to take his well-crafted sandwiches to the next level.
Vats is also putting a creative spin on bagels offering a rotating array of sweet dessert-inspired combinations on the weekends. Expect a “Neapolitan” inspired bite to feature a chocolate bagel with strawberry cream cheese and vanilla cookie crumble.
While the future is uncertain for Vats and Pidgorodetska, the owners believe with this team in place The Onion Roll will eventually have the capacity to expand to include a second location.
“This is about people helping people,” said Rosenthal matter-of-factly. “We are honored to have them here with us.”
“I like America and I love Ukraine,” said Vats. “I am grateful to Dr. Russo and Ryan and the Onion Roll for supporting my family, supporting Ukraine and keeping us safe.”
ONION ROLL: UPDATED FOR A NEW GENERATION
For six decades The Onion Roll has largely stayed the same, but owners Ryan Rosenthal and Igor Russo have updated the Jewish deli for a new generation of bagel and corned beef loving customers. The layout and general atmosphere remain the same, but new light fixtures, fresh paneling on the walls and a spruced-up breakfast bar have given the North Avenue mainstay some modern-meets-retro flair.
“Our longtime customers have applauded the changes we’ve made,” said Ryan Rosenthal, co-owner of the Onion Roll. “We offer a generational experience, and all are welcome here.”
The business owners have introduced occasional live entertainment on the weekends and seasonal specials including pumpkin pancakes, but the biggest changes are happening at the register.
The Onion Roll now accepts online orders and credit card payments.