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By Nona Tepper
About 75 Forest Parkers crowded the entrance of the new Living Fresh Market on May 16, sampling products and listening to the origin story of the new grocer at 7520 Roosevelt Rd.
"Our work just started, we have a long way to go, and I'm thinking this is where our challenge is, trying to get one customer in the store and build one at a time," said Dan Casaccio, co-owner of the store, with his brother Ken Casaccio.
The two are third-generation grocers who also own Leamington Foods, a chain of three grocery stores in Hillside and Chicago started by their father, Gus Casaccio, in 1923.
"I didn't think I'd ever be in this situation after over 65 years in the business," Gus Casaccio said with a smile, adding that he felt proud of his boys.
Living Fresh represents a departure for the Leamington chain, since the Forest Park store is managed by GCC LLC, an entity separate from the old grocery stores, which are managed under Leamington Foods Inc.
The family celebrated the new store's official opening with white sheet cake and free samples of bacon, sausage, pizza puffs and more. Dan Casaccio said that every customer is entitled to a free cup of coffee during Living Fresh's first two weeks in business.
"I used to shop at Ultra Foods all the time and I've been waiting for them to do a grand opening," said Lakisha Lofton, a customer who traveled from Chicago to shop at the new store on May 16.
Lofton said she thinks Living Fresh offers reasonable prices and better selection of fruit than the old Ultra, which closed at that location in June 2017 after parent company Strack & Van Til went bankrupt. She bought water and green apples at the new Living Fresh, and said its opening will help her cut her reliance on fast food.
"Today we're launching a new beginning," said Forest Park Mayor Anthony Calderone.
Calderone said the Casaccios called him in April 2017 about opening a new store. The village, Living Word Christian Center (which owns the shopping center) and the bank helped the family buy the old Ultra equipment before items were placed for auction in bankruptcy court.
In March, the Forest Park Village Council voted to give Living Fresh up to $450,000 (based on sales revenue over a seven-year period) as an incentive to build in Forest Park Plaza. The money will come from the Roosevelt Corridor Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, which stretches from Harlem Avenue to Desplaines Avenue.
The mayor cut the ribbon to the new store on May 16 with Rev. Bill Winston, pastor of Living Word Christian Center, which owns Forest Park Plaza LLC. Living Fresh has entered a lease that stretches about 40 years with Forest Park Plaza.
"This will be the first store of Living Fresh Market all over Chicagoland," Winston said.
"It's been a partnership all three ways. Everybody gave something, and that's the way it should be," he added, blessing the owners, customers and suppliers of the new store.
Melody Winston, director of commercial assets at Living Word and daughter of Bill Winston, said getting a newly launched grocery brand is "unheard of" and noted that most villages are not getting new stores at this time.
"We knew what you needed and as a landlord, we like to give something to the community of substance," Melody Winston said. "In naming this grocery store Living Fresh Market, they intentionally wanted it to live and go on for generations and generations and generations, as they have in the past."