The latest from our Northwest Side Hero Project--highlighting stories about local heroes, as nominated by their neighbors, doing great things on the Northwest Side of Chicago.
John Panvino, chef and owner of Trattoria Porretta, was nominated as a Northwest Side Hero for more than his Rigatoni Boscaiola (which is delicious, by the way). He is a local hero for running a long-standing business that gives back in a major way to local schools and other groups in the area. Almost every week, Porretta’s hosts a benefit night, giving back a portion of earnings to area schools. He also supports other causes, donating time and money through the Chicago West Suburban UNICO (an Italian American service organization with a motto ”Service Above Self”) to St. Mary’s of Providence, Wounded Warrior Project, and local children’s hospitals.
John also shares his restaurant space, opening his doors weekly to 14 students from Northside Learning Center High School, a CPS school serving students with disabilities, to provide space and opportunity for occupational therapy. Students help around the restaurant; they arrange flowers for the tables and clean the floors, and receive mentoring in return. Talk about a win/win arrangement.
So what motivates John to give back? A simple thank you goes a long way.
“It makes a difference. You get a lot of thank you’s when you do a fundraiser.”
Positive feedback from customers has made the long hours and risk of owning a restaurant worthwhile.
“Overall business has always been good, but there’s periods when it’s up and down. You can have a bad day, but then a customer tells me they enjoyed their meal. It’s like coming home to your kids after a long day. You forget all about your problems.”
John has lived on the Northwest Side all his life, growing up in Portage Park. He started at Porretta’s at the age of 14 as a busboy, then learned his way around the kitchen. By 18, he was cooking and had established a good working relationship with the owner, Mr. Pat Porretta.
“I always loved the business.”
At 24, he became a partner and together they took Porretta’s from a small pizzeria to a full-service restaurant in 1995.
“Borrowing money to do it wasn’t easy.”
But it’s paid off. The neighborhood has changed a lot in that time but has always been good to Porretta’s. John still sees the “old-timers,” long-standing customers, but has also seen an influx of younger families looking for a local spot for a birthday outing, date night, or a place to take the kids out for pizza. Though the age of his customers may have changed, the attitude has not.
“People come and go, but it’s always been a strong family-based community. With houses close together, neighbors talk to one another! I see it picking up my kids from school. We all know each other.”
John credits a lot of his sense of service to his mom and dad, who still live in the area.
“My parents raised me well. When I was a kid, there was always somebody eating at my house. They were always helping others.”
Mr. and Mrs. Panvino should be proud. According to local resident Amie Zander, John is one of the nicest people she knows and truly goes above and beyond. John agrees to that part, but hardly calls himself a hero.
“I mean, I’ve never saved a life.”
But it is people like John and establishments like Trattoria Porretta that define a community. For that, he’s “saving” the character of the Northwest Side, and for that, he is a hero. This holiday season, get into Porretta’s to try that Rigatoni Boscaiola and be sure to thank John on your way out.
Nora Kerr is the owner of Memoir for Me, specializing in preserving the stories that matter.