I first learned about Nini’s Deli from a few friends, first only by name and seeing homies post food on their Instagram. Eventually I had a chance to meet Juan and he was mad cool. So after seeing and eating some of the food and hearing that it was a family-run business that combined aspects of Cuban and Lebanese food, I was curious about the history of Nini’s Deli. So I finally had a chance to stop by and see the restaurant in person. I sat down and asked Juan a few questions about himself, his family’s history, and the history of their business. Their story is like many others in Chicago, which is a story of immigrants coming here and making the most of what they have, adding to the variety of flavor Chicago has to offer.
DAVID RASOOL ROBINSON: Tell us your name, your background and what you do for Nini’s.
JUAN-ELIAS RIESCO: My name is Juan-Elias Riesco. I am born of two immigrant parents in the north side of Chicago. My family first opened up Nini’s Deli in 2010 while I was studying graphic design in San Francisco. In 2012, my father was rushed to the hospital for emergency heart surgery and my folks asked me to drop all I was doing in the West Coast to come take over the new family business. Since moving home, I have redesigned the entire interior of the restaurant, rebranded us completely and conceptualized our menu.
Where does the name Nini’s come from?
Nini’s is named after my big sister. When my folks first had my sister they used to tell my brother, “Go to the other room and check up on la niña (translates to little girl in english).” My brother, who was 3 at the time, used to come back into the room saying, “La Nini is crying!” He couldn’t pronounce the spanish Ñ so he said Nini instead. The nickname stuck.
Tell me about the history of Nini’s and how the original family business transitioned from the corner store to Nini’s the restaurant.
My dad moved from Cuba to Chicago at the age of 9 and got his first job when he was a teenager working at his neighborhood deli. My grandfather moved to Chicago, after doing a hefty bid in the Cuban jail, when my pops was in his early 20s. Together they opened a one-stop-shop grocery/sandwich shop in 1980 directly across the street from where Nini’s is now. They sold everything from motor oil to Cuban sandwiches for 20 years on that corner. When my folks opened up shop in 2010 with the same concept, they noticed that people no longer were buying groceries, but it wasn’t till I took over when we removed groceries from the equation and transformed into solely a restaurant. Skeptical at first, my parents did not like my decision to get rid of the groceries, but now are very happy with my business plan.
How does a sandwich get its name?
The bulk of our menu is our own rendition of classic Cuban dishes, so for the most part we stuck to traditional names.
What future plans do you have for Nini’s?
Our plan for Nini’s is to continue to provide quality food and service. Since the ’80s, my parents have built their business around customer service. Till this day, people come into Nini’s and talk about how much they loved my mom and dad back in the day when they had the old shop. So I focus on giving the new locals the same loving customer service that my folks provided back in the day. I have a few cool collaborations coming out soon with local designers and graphic artists to create some interesting and fun merch for the shop as well. I really want to use the platform I’ve created to work with other emerging artists. I’m super stoked on that.
Nini’s doesn’t just make sandwiches, they also serve empanadas, hummus and pita and desserts. They also have many halal and vegetarian options.