Joseph Cirrintano has come full-circle, in terms of his relationship with Italian cuisine. The Forest Park native, who savored his grandmother’s lasagna growing up on Elgin Avenue, is now bringing his love of seafood and Italian staples to the kitchen of Francesca’s Fiore, 7407 Madison St.

The veteran chef claims the only cooking class he ever attended was his home economics course at Field-Stevenson. But with 15 years of on-the-job training, Cirrintano makes no apology for his lack of formal food-preparation education.  “You can graduate from a cooking school and know nothing about the restaurant business,” he said. His family has operated Italian eateries in Florida and on Taylor Street, in Chicago.

Cirrantano is part of the third generations of a Sicilian-American family that has called Forest Park home for years. His grandfather owned a building at Desplaines Avenue and Randolph Street, and his father operated a business on Madison Street.  He also had great-aunts and uncles scattered throughout town. Cirrintano’s mother, Lucille, served as village treasurer and taught swimming at the Park District of Forest Park’s pool, alongside the late Lorraine Popelka, former mayor.

The Park was Cirrintano’s favorite haunt. He was a pool rat during the summer and ice skated there from morning until night during the winter. He has warm memories of attending the All School Picnic and watching the 16″ No Glove Softball Tournament.

After graduating from middle school in 1985, Cirrintano was one of the few in his class to attend Proviso East High School. He was also a minority among his buddies in that he went to college. He graduated from Northern Illinois University (NIU) with a degree in audio engineering. Cirrintano initially wanted to become a record producer or a sound engineer but quickly soured on the music business.

“I had invested $30,000 in education and spent three months working as an unpaid intern at a recording studio,” he lamented. Turned off by the unsavory lifestyle that surrounded the studio, Cirrintano made a sharp turn professionally and geographically.

He followed his parents to Sarasota, Fla., where they had opened an upscale Italian eatery called Café Classico. After working with his dad, Cirrintano became a chef at another Italian restaurant there. In 2007, Cirrintano moved back to Chicago. By this time, he was married with two young sons and his wife, Rachelle, wanted to be closer to her family, on Taylor Street in Chicago.

Cirrintano also had family in Chicago’s Little Italy and ended up cooking at a restaurant owned by his cousin.  Now, he’s back in the town where he first tasted his grandmother’s home cooking.

“It’s fantastic, what they did with Madison Street,” Cirrintano marveled, “It’s a changed town.” One thing that hasn’t changed about Forest Park, he noted, is its strategic location, close to downtown Chicago. Cirrintano hopes to reconnect with his hometown by donating his time and cooking skills to support local causes.

“Joe brings his own creations to enhance Francesca’s menu,” said Bong Solomon, the restaurant’s manager. Solomon has worked off-and-on at the Forest Park location for 11 years and recently returned to his post on June 6. Since then he has tried to reshape Francesca’s image by booking live music, scheduling a winemaker’s dinner and offering a rewards program.

Francesca’s may be a national chain but its Madison Street restaurant occupies a unique space. It features an open kitchen with a wood-burning oven – perfect for pizza. The main dining area is accented by skylights and a fireplace. There’s a spacious bar area and two party rooms. And, an overhead door offers patrons “inside-outside” seating -fresh air mixed with air conditioning.

Customers don’t come to Francesca’s, though, just for the atmosphere. “We keep the prices steady and affordable,” Solomon said, “We give a lot of value with our chef specials and discounts on bottles of wine. We have the best selection and quality of any wine list in town.”

Solomon’s words are not empty, as the Francesca formula has been successful across the country. The chain is currently opening eateries in North Carolina, California and Arizona, a total of 21 in all. CEO Scott Harris was recently profiled by Chicago Magazine as, possibly, one of the country’s most underrated restaurateurs.

“It’s amazing that this chain can open up that many restaurants in this economy,” Cirrintano said, “It’s because it offers great Italian food that isn’t too upscale.” 

This is likely music to the ears of many down-to-earth, blue-collar Forest Parkers.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.