Joey Morelli of Max's Deli goes on a great, charitable adventure

  • Joey Morelli, left, met Deerfield native Eric Lyons at a 2021 fundraiser for Lyons' Hope for the Silent Voices organization. Here they are May 24 at Morelli's Max's Deli in Highland Park during a fundraiser and launch of Joey's Food Fight to support Morelli's work for Hope House in Cambodia.

    Joey Morelli, left, met Deerfield native Eric Lyons at a 2021 fundraiser for Lyons' Hope for the Silent Voices organization. Here they are May 24 at Morelli's Max's Deli in Highland Park during a fundraiser and launch of Joey's Food Fight to support Morelli's work for Hope House in Cambodia. Courtesy of Ilyse Strongin

 
 
Updated 6/9/2022 7:49 AM

Joey Morelli has no children of his own. If he has his way, though, he'll take care of a bunch of them around the world the best way he knows how.

"I'm just a guy that likes to cook," said Morelli, owner of Max's Deli in Highland Park.

 

"I don't have any kids, so I might as well go to different countries, help some orphan kids, empower them to cook for themselves, prepare a kitchen. And I'll probably revisit the kids. Who knows, I may adopt a kid, you never know," he said.

You never know.

One thing the 52-year-old chef-slash-restaurateur does know is he's amped up for all those other things. From July 3-Aug. 3, the inaugural effort of his nonprofit organization, Joey's Food Fight, will take Morelli to Cambodia, where he'll set up a professional kitchen, cook, and instruct the young residents how to shop and eat healthy.

"I am going to be cooking for the kids and building them a new, working kitchen," said Morelli, Highland Park High School Class of 1988.

"Right now their kitchen is pretty much a table, a refrigerator, and a hot pot. They need equipment. They need me to make a real, working kitchen. The kid running it right now is a 14-year-old kid," said Morelli, who will detail his progress on his website.

Morelli said the teenage girl running the kitchen doesn't have much culinary skill, but that might be expected when the kitchen, and the boardinghouse it's part of, was established around the Stung Meanchey "garbage village" near one of Cambodia's Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh.

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The orphanage is Hope House. It's a subsidiary of Hope for the Silent Voices, a nonprofit founded in 2007 by Eric Lyons of Deerfield, where he retains a headquarters despite living in Cambodia. Hope for the Silent Voices combats human trafficking and provides resources and support to disadvantaged youth -- basically taking them in off the street.

Lyons was struck by the destitute children there when he served as a first responder following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Morelli said.

The two met at a 2021 fundraiser for Hope House. After Morelli saw a video of the Cambodian children served by Hope for the Silent Voices he asked Lyons if he could cook for them.

"We got to know each other over the course of about six months, and here we are today," Morelli said in May.

The two men were at another fundraiser back on May 24, this one at Max's Deli, 191 Skokie Valley Road, to help launch Joey's Food Fight. Despite the casual location, dress and fare -- a taco bar, hot dogs, s'mores, things like that -- Morelli said he raised more than $20,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It was a screaming success, more than I ever could have hoped for," he said.

The New York-style Jewish delicatessen in Highland Park may disguise Morelli's serious cooking chops.

Schooled in restaurant management at the University of Illinois and Kendall College's culinary school, Morelli started out at renowned downtown restaurants Gordon, Spruce and Marché, then moved to kitchens in Arizona, California and New York.

"I don't think there's 10 chefs better than me," Morelli said.

Back home by 2000, in 2003 he and his brother, Greg, opened Joey's Brickhouse in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, the brothers earning television credits in 2009 on the Food Network's "Chef vs. City" program.

After selling the successful Brickhouse, in 2011 Joey Morelli acquired Max's, a third-generation deli.

"Our slogan is we're Italian Jews, which means, besides bickering, we're into food," he said.

After a failed marriage and under a ticking clock, in his 40s Morelli figured he'd never have children of his own. A board member of the Chicago chapter of Stand Up for Kids, which targets youth homelessness, he crafted a plan to combine his love for children with his culinary talents to cook at orphanages around the world.

He said his plan is to let the universe guide him. So far the universe has led him to Lyons, and soon to Cambodia and the children of Hope House.

"I'm going to have my own version of family," Morelli said. "I'm so psyched."

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