We are recounting the story of our founder, Angelo Caputo. He led a life of hard work and sacrifice to get him where he is today. As his granddaughter, I have been so lucky to hear his story and learn from him first hand. I’ve been able to travel with him to his hometown and listen to his childhood memories of growing up in difficult times. In 1999, at the request of my mother, he sat down and started writing about his life. His story is one that I believe should be told and I am honored to share it with you.
Part I: The Beginning
Angelo Caputo was born on January 1st, 1932 at 4am in his family home on Via Zuccarino in Mola di Bari, Italy into a very hardworking family. Their family operated two small businesses at the time of his birth. One business was a wholesale outlet for farmers and the other was a grocery store. They had small and humble quarters for their home. While his mother worked at the grocery store, he stayed at her side in a little makeshift crib. His mother always said he was a good baby who cried very little, something she appreciated during the long, busy days at the store. By the age of four, he was a typical, busy child and his mother entrusted him to Signorina Maria, a teacher who prepared kids for “asilo” or pre-school. He was with Signoria Maria Monday-Friday and he learned many things including how to recite “poesie” or poems. Saturdays were typically busy at their family grocery store so he would spend the day with family friends that lived nearby and practice what he learned with Signorina Maria.
By the age of 6, he was ready to start helping out in the family grocery store! He started by watching his mom, then would assist her and help organize the products and clean the store. He would even help with collecting money. There were no cash registers at the time, so the family would put the money in a drawer.
When he started 4th grade, he was ready to transition to helping on the family farm. He would get out of school at 2pm and go home to eat quickly. His only way to get to the farm was on an adult bike, which was difficult for his size, but he made it work. This was his routine every day.
He finished grammar school in 1944 and, needless to say, World War II had affected their family. His father, despite being older, was called into the army and his family experienced difficult times. The following years brought many hardships for them and many families. Schools closed and bombs were being dropped in nearby towns. Conditions became dangerous and they were forced to closed their grocery store and move to the farm with a few other families for their safety. As an 11-year-old boy, he didn’t mind not having to go to school and enjoyed the company of the other kids who were sheltered there. Food was scarce, but they considered themselves blessed because on the farm they were able to have fruit and potatoes every day. Although this was little, it was more than others had to eat.
Finally, the war ended, and the schools reopened. But during this time away from school, Angelo had gotten a feel for working full time and knew that working was what he wanted to do, not go to school. His parents were not fond of the idea and made him keep up with his studies. He continued attending school, but became even more adamant that he wanted to quit school and work full time. To deter him, his father would give him the hardest and toughest jobs like unloading railroad cars of fertilizer and heavy bales of hay. This never bothered him, but made him hungrier for work.
This hunger to succeed and desire to work hard fueled him in his future endeavors.
It was during this time in 1946 that a beautiful young lady with long, dark braids came into the store where he was working. This beautiful young lady was named Romana and would become his wife.
Part II: The Love Story
In the store where Angelo worked, there was a large scale. One day, a girl with beautiful, long, dark braids came into the store holding a baby. She walked into the store, weighed herself holding the baby on that big scale and left. Angelo watched and waited for this girl to come into the store and wanted to know more about her. Angelo soon found out that this girl’s name was Romana and her older sister had a cantina near Angelo’s family’s store. Romana would watch her nephew, the baby she was holding when Angelo first saw her, during the day and bring the baby to her sister to feed him around the same time every evening. Angelo would see her walk by and wonder about her. One day, he decided he wanted to know more about her. He followed her for a little bit, and when he got close enough, he playfully tugged one of her braids and said “ciao!” to get her attention. She immediately turned around, unamused, and carried on.
Romana’s routine continued for about a year. Angelo kept watching her and admiring her beauty until one night he got the courage to talk to her. They would briefly chat, and Angelo took every opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. He learned things like the fact that her dad travelled for his work, that she had two brothers and two sisters, and where her name came from. Romana was not a common name in Italy, but Romana was born on October 28th which is known for the March of Rome or Marcia Su Roma, so her parents named her Romana. Those little talks helped them to build a friendship. Angelo would find excuses to run errands and hang out on the corner where her house was just so he could see her and talk to her. One day, Angelo kissed her cheek. After which, Romana jokingly told him “you have to marry me now.” Angelo laughed it off because felt he still had a lot to prove before he could be worthy enough to be her husband.
In the meantime, Angelo was assuming more responsibility on his family farm. His older brother and father had found their way to America, so Angelo was the man of the house. Angelo found himself dreaming of going to America and what it would be like to work there, The Land of Opportunity. It wasn’t possible for him yet, so he worked harder, picking up the extra work that was required. Angelo still took every opportunity to see Romana, like waiting for her when she would run errands.
The time Angelo and Romana spent together was limited because of how much work needed to be done. He kept working hard, hoping that one day he would have his chance to go to the United States. In June of 1950, Angelo returned to his house after a day at the farm and found a postcard from the American Council informing him of a new opportunity for him. Because his father was working in the US at the time of his birth, he was eligible to enter the military draft and gain his US citizenship. Angelo knew this was an opportunity he could not pass up and that “it was like a blessing from up above.” He found out he could leave Mola in as soon as 24 hours. He could begin the new life he dreamt of in America, but he had a few loose ends in Mola. One was that he was in charge of the farm and there was a full crop of almonds and grain that had to be harvested. The second was his Romana. He decided to stay in Italy for another two weeks so he could finish the crop and teach his younger brothers what to do in his absence.
On June 20, 1950, Angelo rode his bike to that familiar street corner with a handwritten goodbye note and a carnation. He put it in an open window in Romana’s house. He talked with a couple friends to make sure they would watch over her while he was gone and if they got a chance, to tell her he had to leave for work, but someday, he would return to her.
On June 21, 1950, Angelo and his father set out for Naples where Angelo would board a ship and begin his journey to America.
Part III: Life in America
As Angelo sailed away from his home, he began to think. He thought about what he was leaving behind– his family, his friends, his Romana. He was 18 years old, alone, and heading to the unknown. While this might be scary to some people, Angelo turned this fear into determination– something still true of his character today. He was determined to prove himself, to make a life for himself and his future family. He knew he was getting an opportunity that people dreamed about, that he dreamed about, and he was not going to let this opportunity go past him. He got motion sick his first few days at sea, but kept reminding himself that he “was going to America.” After 12 days at sea, he saw the “beautiful, tall, welcoming sight of the Statue of Liberty.”
The only personal belongings he had with him was a small handbag, so he got through immigration rather quickly. He was met by his brother-in-law and uncle who were already in the US. He spent a few days in New York before driving to Chicago. As soon as he got to Chicago, he began to think about work, the reason he came to America. His uncle suggested he take some time to go to school and learn the English language before working. This didn’t fly with Angelo and he insisted on working while attending school, and so he did. He got a job in a factory on Armitage and Cicero earning $1.49 an hour. He also attended classes that taught about American history and the English language. As he began learning more, he was able to get himself a place to live and a better paying job. He was making more money and picked up a second job. After a little while, it was time to report for the draft.
All while in America, he kept thinking about Romana. He wrote her every day beginning the first day he arrived in America. He dreamt about the day he would get to see her again.
He was finally called into service and sent to Camp Chaffee Arkansas where he went through his basic training for the army, which he describes as two extremely challenging months. They then sent him to Fort Dix, New Jersey where he would await his overseas assignment. With the Korean War going on, he anxiously awaited to find out where his assignment would take him. He soon was assigned to a second Armored Division stationed in Worms, Germany right on the Rhine on an army vessel. Being in Germany meant that he was closer to his hometown in Italy and closer to Romana. He found himself thinking about her often and wondering where she was. He wanted to know if she was still waiting for him.
Angelo was on good terms with his supervisor and told him about his situation with the love of his life. He was granted a 10 day leave of absence and took the first train he could from Frankfurt. He had a long journey ahead of him- Frankfurt to Munich to Brennero to Bologna to, finally, Mola and Romana. He was picked up by his brother-in-law and the next day went straight to that familiar street corner to see Romana. He was nervous to see her and asked some friends to help set up a meeting. Angelo needed to see her and see for himself if she still remembered him after many long years. He was so nervous knowing that they would soon be in the same room. When he first saw her, she was no longer a young girl, but a grown, beautiful woman. They saw each other and everything stopped, neither of them able to speak. They spent time catching up with each other– she told him that she was caring for her mother who had fallen ill, and her mother had sadly passed and he told her about his time in America. As they were saying goodbye that evening, Angelo held Romana’s hands, looked into her beautiful eyes, and told her how much he still loved her and that he wanted to marry her.
Angelo set up a plan to go with his older sister (because his mother and father were already in America) to Romana’s family home and ask her family for permission to marry her. Walking into her family’s home a few days later, Angelo felt a sense of warmth. He asked for her hand in marriage and was given the blessing from the family, but there were still logistics to be set. Romana and her family were a little uneasy about having a wedding so close to their mother’s death, but Angelo’s sister explained his busy timeline. She told them that he was only in town for a few days. His plan was to get engaged and come back a month before he would return to the US to get married. He then received the official answer that he had been waiting years for… he and Romana were going to get married!
They spent the rest of his leave together and making plans. They had a dinner with both families where Angelo gave Romana a ring and they went to the cemetery to visit their loved ones that had passed.
A few months later, Angelo returned to Mola and on September 24, 1956, they officially became husband and wife. As Angelo saw Romana enter the church, his eyes filled with joyful tears knowing this woman would soon be his wife. They had a small reception and spent the last few days of his leave honeymooning through Italy.
Romana waited in Mola while Angelo completed his service then she would meet him in America. A few weeks after his term was completed, Romana made the journey to America and was greeted by Angelo in New York. They took the next flight to Chicago and spent the plane ride talked and dreamt about their future and their new life in America together. They both knew there would be a lot of hard work and sacrifices that had to be made, but they would enjoy a beautiful life together.
Just like they had thought, they had a lot of work ahead of them
Part IV: The Beginning of Caputo’s
Upon their arrival in Chicago, their life became hectic. They were balancing married life, work, and living in a new place. Angelo and Romana moved into the same apartment building as Angelo’s parents, living in the unit right above them. He was always eager to work, so he started working multiple jobs so that he and Romana could begin saving for their future. Angelo, having grown up in a grocery store and on a farm, knew that’s where his passion and knowledge was.
In 1958, he started working in a 25’ by 120’ building at 2560 N Harlem Ave on the corner of Harlem and Wrightwood in Elmwood Park. This small fruit store became Caputo’s New Farm Produce. This store became well known amongst the growing Italian community in Chicago because of Angelo’s roots in Italy and his customer base expanded.
Originally, it was a mostly full-service store meaning the customers would tell the clerk what they wanted and it would be picked for them. The store began to steadily grow, and it slowly transitioned into a self-service store and the customers loved it. The process was very old-fashioned and simple, much of the calculating done by hand on brown paper bags or the box. The register was a $5 National Register, this means that if a customer bought $30 worth of produce, you’d have to push the buttons 6 times. The customers loved the switch to self-service and he drew a bigger clientele. He then bought a $25 register, but all the adding was still being done by hand on those paper bags.
Angelo remembers “working hard and encouraged the whole family work hard.” Angelo and Romana were blessed with three kids, the youngest being my mother, Antonella. On weekends, Romana would make sandwiches and bring them to the store for the family and the employees to eat for lunch. His kids got involved, doing whatever needed to be done.
Angelo started his days buying fresh produce. Whether he was driving to local farms, heading to farms in Michigan or Indiana, or going to the South Water Market on the west side of Chicago, he would buy produce that was often picked fresh and sold in the store on the very same day to ensure that his customers were getting the freshest produce for the best prices, a process still alive and well today.
Working conditions weren’t the best. It was a lot of physical labor in a store with no heat or air conditioning because the store was somewhat like an open market, and we all know the highs and lows of Chicago weather. Nobody complained though, everyone worked hard in whatever condition they were faced with.
The store remained busy and parking became an issue. Whenever I meet customers of our original location, parking is always a topic of conversation. Parking was very limited, and it was always a challenge. Angelo’s goal has always been to satisfy his customers, so he always kept his eye open to find nearby locations that would work for parking.
It was around this time that my parents met. My dad, Robertino, began working for my grandfather. He was young, but he was strong and he was a hard worker. Angelo knew he could handle the work after seeing the way he could unload trucks by hand– the way most everything was done at the time.
The store kept growing and eventually became an Italian Specialty store. It was no longer just produce, but a full grocery store. This included the addition of our private label, La Bella Romana, in 1984. The name of the private label translates into the Beautiful Romana as a way to honor his beloved wife.
After years of only being in Elmwood Park, it was time to expand. There were more and more Italians coming to the Chicago suburbs which meant the demand for an Italian Specialty store was growing and Caputo’s was the place for that. The second store was opened in 1991 in Addison, then Hanover park in 1996 with more to follow.
Later, Angelo was ready to retire (I’ll use the word retire loosely because he still spends most of his days in the stores) and enjoy life with his beautiful wife. The whole family continued working. Eventually, he entrusted the business to my parents, Robertino and Antonella, who have grown Caputo’s even more. Angelo considers himself “very fortunate to have been blessed with a daughter and a son-in-law who learned firsthand from me and share the passion of taking care of the family business.”
Part V: Where We Are Today
The business was steadily growing, and Angelo was ready to retire and enjoy life with Romana. The whole family worked and, eventually, the business was entrusted to my parents, Robertino and Antonella…
In the summer of 1999, my grandfather, Angelo, sat down and hand wrote his story at the request of my mother. I consider myself blessed to not only have his story written down, but to still have him with me to continue teaching us and to answer our many questions.
Sadly, in 2004, we lost our matriarch when my grandmother, Romana, lost her battle with cancer. We miss her immensely, but cherish the time we spent with her and the memories we have with her. We do our best to honor her in every way possible including expanding the La Bella Romana products to include more prepared foods. Anyone who knows my grandmother knows that she was the best cook and loved preparing meals for people, so what better way to honor her legacy than to have meals available for our customers that feature her name and picture.
Today, we are still that same family owned and operated business, operating with a foundation of hard work and family. You can often find Angelo at the stores. He makes his rounds and goes to multiple stores a day to overlook operations. He watched with pride as our family opened more stores and grew his name. As we grew, we expanded our product lines. We offer our customers a diverse assortment of international, traditional, healthy, and organic foods of the highest quality– the same goal he had when he came to America many years ago.
I am one of 5 children, all of us are involved in the family business. My siblings and I know we have big shoes to fill and strive to make our parents and grandparents proud. We are lucky to have incredible influences who made endless sacrifices for our family.
Our story is continuing, but we thank God and our loyal customers for taking this journey with us.
What better way to close this glimpse into his than with a quote from that handwritten story:
“Now, that little girl in braids has become my wife and a nonna. That crazy guy that preferred work over school is very proud of what he accomplished in life. Believe me, I would do it over again and again, making very few changes. What is important is that we are very blessed to be healthy and to be more in love with each other than ever. We love to travel, but our favorite thing to do is enjoy time with our grandchildren.
I am so proud of what we have accomplished so far and can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Ps. If I knew grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first!”