Flags in Forest Park flew at half-mast Monday to commemorate the death of Salvatore (Sal) Ferrara II, 63, former CEO of Ferrara Candy Company, who died of esophageal cancer, Nov. 27, at his home in Oak Brook.
Ferrara was remembered in the village as a generous benefactor to the Park District of Forest Park, the Chamber of Commerce, St. Bernardine Parish, Forest Park Little League and the Forest Park police and fire departments.
“He never said no when people came to ask him for donations,” said friend Michael Mohr of Mohr Oil. “He took great pride in the village and having a business in Forest Park.”
Mayor Anthony Calderone called Ferrara and his family “the epitome of civic responsibility, generosity and pride.”
“With the passing of Sal, so does an era which history will fondly remember,” he added in a statement.
Ferrara was raised in River Forest and attended St. Luke School and Loyola University in New Orleans.
In 1986, he took the helm of the family-owned Ferrara Pan Candy Company, founded in 1908, by his grandfather and carried on by his father Nello. The company moved to Forest Park in 1959 when they bought and repurposed a Borden milk factory.
After assuming leadership, Sal Ferrara took the company from $3 million to $350 million in value, according to an article in Candy Industry magazine. The company, which made Red Hots, Boston Baked Beans, Lemonheads and Atomic Fireballs made a million pounds of candy a day.
“That man traveled around the world hundreds of times,” Mohr said.
Oak Park candy maker Linda Sahagian called Ferrara an “icon in the industry” and remembered lavish dinners for 400 thrown by Ferrara when candy makers swooped into Chicago for the Sweets and Snacks Expo at McCormick Place. Sometimes the dinners were followed by a fireworks display.
“He threw a beautiful party at Fulton on the river,” she recalled. He was a high-achiever and all his parties reflected that with good planning and good fun.”
Described by colleagues and friends as “competitive,” Ferrara was written up in Crain’s Chicago Business in 2009 for taking on Kraft Foods after a distribution deal fell through. He created and marketed a line of premium European-style chocolates meant to compete with the Toblerone brand his company had formerly distributed.
In 2010, Ferrara’s dream came true when his beloved Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in Philadelphia. Ferrara was in the locker room celebrating and down on the ice with his girlfriend, now wife, Andrea who drank champagne from the trophy. Ferrara hosted a three-day party celebration that culminated with the Blackhawks parade in downtown Chicago. A Stanley Cup banner hung on the factory wall for months following the win. Ferrara was a significant contributor to the Blackhawks Alumni Association, which funds hockey scholarships for students.
In September, as Ferrara was ailing, Blackhawks players and managers sent get well wishes in a video. “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” said hockey player Jonathan Toews. Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw also sent video wishes.
Shareholder family members sometimes disagreed about Ferrara’s expenses, including buying a company plane. Following one such dispute in May 2011, Ferrara was briefly ousted as CEO but the family, which included three generations of shareholders, came to an agreement and reinstated him.
When patriarch Nello died in 2012 at age 93, Ferrara merged the company with Farley’s and Sathers, a maker of hard candies, Chuckles and Jujubes, with branches in Round Lake, Minnesota and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Controlling interest was retained by Catterton Partners, a holding company.
Sal Ferrara was CEO of the new Ferrara Candy Company. He moved the offices to Oak Brook Terrace and started working on a massive distribution center in Barrington.
But the arrangement didn’t last and Ferrara left the company in March 2014, telling the Review, “We merged with a private equity group and there was a difference of cultures. It was time to move on.”
In April, Ferrara took a job as CEO of Haribo of America Inc., the German company that makes Gummy Bears. He was said to be working on a plan to open a branch in Rosemont when his health deteriorated.
Sahagian worked with Ferrara on the strategic plan for the National Confectioners Association.
“He was a leader of great strength,” she said. “He gave 100 percent for the confectioners industry. We were working together, even though we were competitors, for the good of the industry.”
In Forest Park, Ferrara was remembered for his generosity to local organizations.
“He was a great friend of The Park,” said Park District Executive Director Larry Piekarz. Ferrara made himself available and returned calls, Piekarz said.
“Anytime we needed something or asked for help for anything, he was always there, one of the kindest people you ever met.”
Ferrara paid for basketball courts at The Park (later replaced by a skate park).
He was the Chamber of Commerce’s largest donor as far back as Executive Director Laurie Kokenes could remember.
“As I searched the Internet, I was beyond amazed at the breadth of Sal’s charitable work and generosity,” Kokenes wrote to Chamber members.
Ferrara donated use of the company’s Chicago Bulls skybox to the Chamber auction every year, bringing in thousands of dollars, she said.
St. Bernardine’s secretary, Donna Gawlas, said Ferrara donated to every school and parish fundraiser and always donated boxes of candy to the students in the school, which was located across the street from the factory. Ferrara was also a sponsor of the All-School Picnic every May.
“Sal had a great family and was always an awesome neighbor to The Park, and to everybody in this community,” Piekarz said.
Sal Ferrara was born on Feb. 28, 1951 to Nello and Marilyn Ferrara. He was the husband of Andrea (née Gioe); the father of Nello II (Laura), Alana Ferrara, Lauren (Matthew) Houder, the late Bobby (Jennifer) and Erik (Kristy) Hall. He was formerly married to Meg (Fox) Ferrara of River Forest. He was the grandfather of Matthew, Charlie and Brooke Houder; the brother of Serajean (the late John) Alioto, Nella (William) Davy; the brother-in-law of Barbara (the late Jim) Orlando, Joe (Nancy) Giarritano and Sam Gioe; and the uncle of Marilyn (Thomas) Bloom, Joseph Alioto, Salvatore (Francesca), William and Nello (Caitlin) Davy, Alisa (George) Puchmelter, Kenneth (Cherie) Lukowski, Joseph (Leah) and the late Michael Giarritano.
A funeral Mass was celebrated on Dec. 1 at Holy Family Catholic Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago followed by interment at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.
Arrangements were handled by Cumberland Chapels.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Sal’s honor to the Salvatore Ferrara II Esophageal Cancer Research Fund at the University of Chicago (www.givetomedicine.uchicago.edu).
Thi article has been updated to correct the fact that the Ferrara company was started by Sal Ferrara’s grandfather in 1908.