Food Network's 'Sandwich King' cherishes life in the suburbs
Even as a teen at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Food Network star and "Sandwich King" Jeff Mauro knew a thing or two about how to make a good sandwich.
He'd pack his own lunches, because his mom got tired of his constant critiques. He'd wrap each item individually -- the lettuce, the mortadella meat, the provolone cheese and the sub roll (never plain bread!). Then he'd build his sandwich at the school lunch table.
"I was so anal about it. It was even to the point where I wouldn't put bread in plastic Ziplocs, because I could detect the aroma of plastic on my bread. I had a sensitive palate," he said, laughing. "I wasn't a hit with the ladies."
But years later, he was a hit in the suburban deli business, and then on the Food Network. Mauro, 38, who still lives in River Forest, stars on Food Network's "The Kitchen" and runs a chain of barbecue sandwich restaurants in Chicago, Pork & Mindy's. He'll open a few new locations in the city this year, including one at Wrigley Field.
Mauro grew up in a big Italian family in Elmwood Park, River Forest and Chicago's Galewood neighborhood, where food always took center stage. His aunt and uncle run Bernard's Cafe and Deli in Willowbrook.
"I was always surrounded by trays of eggplant Parmesan and mostaccioli. You learn very early on the power of food," he said. "From the time I could get a work permit, I started working in a butcher shop and a sandwich shop."
At 21, after graduating from Bradley University in Peoria with a degree in TV and radio broadcasting, Mauro and his cousin opened Prime Time Deli and Catering at Route 83 and Ogden Avenue in Westmont (there's a Lexus dealership there now).
He'd cook all day and then perform in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" in the evenings. The deli lasted for four years before Mauro decided to close the deli and move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment and comedy.
His life changed overnight in 2011, when at age 32, he auditioned for -- and won -- season seven of "Food Network Star."
"I couldn't tell anyone I won, so I was cooking for $13 an hour when the finale aired," he said. "I woke up that next morning to a book tour and dozens of interviews and TV spots, and it hasn't stopped since."
Mauro has starred on several Food Network shows since, including the Emmy-nominated "Sandwich King." It became his nickname, because of his fondness for sandwiches (check out this decadent recipe for Chicken Pot Pie sandwiches he recently posted on FoodNetwork.com). He's also a spokesman for Black+Decker and George Foreman Grills.
While he's a celebrity chef now, he is a family man first. He insists on living and raising his 8-year-old son, Lorenzo, in the same close-knit community where he grew up, River Forest. Even though he has to travel at least once a week for work ("The Kitchen" is taped in New Jersey), he says it's worth it to be close to his extended family.
"I can sit on my front stoop and watch people walk by and be part of the neighborhood. I don't want to be disconnected from the world I grew up in. Maybe my career could take off tenfold if I moved to the coasts, but that doesn't equate to happiness in my book," he said. "We don't put the value on fame. It's the craft. It's being able to create.
"The best part about all of this is that I get to share it with my family. They were always my biggest fans and greatest supporters. I hang out with cousins and family more than anyone."
Plus, River Forest is near a strip of restaurants Mauro describes as "the underappreciated, unsung, culinary mecca" along North Avenue, including Johnnie's Beef, Alpine Food Shop and New Star (Chinese) Restaurant.
Mauro, 38, recently launched a new line of barbecue sauces and Pork & Mindy's rubbed pork tenderloin filets, which will be sold in Jewel stores starting in April.
Also on the horizon?
"Hopefully, another (Food Network) show. That's always the goal," he said. "After hustling for 12-13 years and trying to aspire to a certain goal, and then making it, this has been surreal," he said. "It's a heck of a job that I really like to do."
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of anyone who'd make an interesting feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.