Last month we brought you the story of Jose and Julie Riesco, and their restaurant, Nini’s. Julie worked at Erie House in the 1980s, and Jose owned a small grocery store around the corner. They met, fell in love, and raised their family in the West Town neighborhood, not far from Erie. This continuation of their story focuses on the creativity and art of their son Juan, and how Nini’s became the flourishing restaurant it is today. It is still a love story, but now it is Juan’s love of his family, his city, his neighborhood, and his art.
In 2012, Juan Riesco’s dedication to family and service brought him back from the art world of San Francisco to his roots in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago. His father was sick, and the family needed his help to run their corner store, Nini’s. Like the corner store the family had owned across the street in the 80s and 90s, Nini’s was primarily a grocery store that also served a few sandwiches. And, as Juan discovered when he returned, it was having an identity crisis.
“Everything was crumbling,” Juan remembers. “We were trying to replicate the same business we had in the 80s, but what we realized is that the demographics of our community have changed over the last 40 years and there was no need for a grocery section. Most of our neighbors no longer cooked at home, it was more so a single person who needed to grab something in and out.”
Juan began to reimagine Nini’s to meet the needs of the new neighbors, while still staying true to the spirit of service and care that was integral to the Riesgo family business tradition.
It was a time for trial and error, and through it all the neighborhood stuck with them. “Although our menu was a mess and we didn’t know who we were as a business, [our guests] said, ‘you know, this place is learning, but I want to go back and support that family because they care’,” Juan recalls.
Under Juan’s careful guidance, Nini’s transformed into what it is today – an award-winning restaurant featured on many top 10 lists, including British GQ’s “Top 10 Coolest Things to Do in Chicago.”
This has much to do with the delicious food and coffee the restaurant offers, but it also has to do with Juan’s artistry. One can see his creativity displayed on the plate, in the interior (and exterior) design of the restaurant, and in his other successful business – apparel company Chicago Native.
Chicago Native apparel “seeks to promote the values of Chicago’s place in our culture at large, the hardworking and humble nature of the people who make Chicago the unique city that it is,” according to the brand’s website. With limited edition clothing runs, some of which are only available to purchase at Nini’s, the company is extremely popular and has a huge Instagram following.
One afternoon in early summer, while Executive Director Kirstin Chernawsky was at Nini’s chatting with Juan about Erie House’s upcoming 150th Anniversary celebration, the idea of a commemorative t-shirt collaboration with Chicago Native was born. “I am a Chicago native because my mom and dad met in Chicago, through Erie House, and so it just was a natural fit,” Juan says. “My art is inspired by the city I grew up in and my parents met at Erie, so for me [the t-shirt collaboration] was an awesome way to give back to the people who are responsible for my family staying and thriving in this community.”
Juan’s design features part of the Erie House 150th anniversary logo on the front, and the quintessential brown honorary street sign on the back, emblazoned with the words “Honorary Erie Neighborhood House Way.”
“It was important for me to include an illustration of the honorary street sign because to me a street pole is incredibly symbolic for Erie House,” says Juan. “Like a street pole, Erie House has stood firm in this community, acting as a beacon of light for generations of neighbors like a street light, and directing youth into their futures like a street sign directs drivers.”
Today, Juan, his wife, and his new daughter continue to live in the neighborhood and continue to build community. Along with Nini’s, they bring in Chicago Native endeavors like the Noble Street Swap Meet, a one-day pop-up shop at the restaurant that gives young Chicago artists a space to sell their work and gives others the opportunity to support them.
His parents, too, still live in the neighborhood. They live less than five blocks from Erie House, the place that brought them together nearly 40 years ago. Julie recently retired from Chicago Public Schools and is now in charge of the bookkeeping and administrative work at Nini’s. As for Jose, “Ninis is all of my dad’s recipes so it always will be a reflection of [him],” Juan says. “When we first opened it was him behind the counter every day, all day. Now it’s me behind the counter and him relaxing outside on the patio.”