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Amazing History Of City's 1st Italian Importer Found In Teardown Building

By Paul Biasco | July 29, 2016 7:12am | Updated on July 29, 2016 2:27pm
 Eric Nordstrom recently discovered trunks in a third-floor room of a former factory in River West that was once home to Chicago's oldest Italian importer.
Italian Time Capsule
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RIVER WEST — No one would have guessed that the third floor of an unassuming brick building near Grand Avenue and Halsted Street had preserved a moment in time connecting the neighborhood's Italian roots to the present.

The building being torn down at 710 W. Grand Ave. was once the home of what might have been Chicago's oldest Italian importer: the Vincenzo Forumusa Co., which still stocks city grocery shelves under a new name.

Piecing together the remnants left in the River West building provides a glimpse of what life was like in the late 1890s.

Paul Biasco details the latest find by Urban Remains.

Among the artifacts uncovered during demolition were photos of the interior and exterior of the storefront, regalia from the 1893 World's Fair, handwritten letters, newspapers and watches.

"Why all that stuff ended up on the third floor and in one particular room? I cannot answer that question," said Eric Nordstrom, an urban archaeologist who regularly canvasses historic buildings across Chicago before they are demolished.

The building, which originally was an apartment complex, still contained some unopened cans of olive oil and had a handmade conveyer belt running down the stairs from when it was converted into a pseudo-factory.

Nordstrom, founder of Urban Remains, a business that sells some of the artifacts he finds, said he was shocked when he came across the trunks in the third-floor room that presumably had remained untouched for a very long time.

The four-story building's top two floors had been sealed off since the Depression, according to Nordstrom.

"There were some incredibly important pieces in there that I don’t understand why they would be left behind, especially some of the photographs that show the façade, show the interior," he said. "It was all left behind.”

An undated photograph shows the interior of the former Vincenzo Forumusa Co. storefront. [Photos by Eric Nordstrom]

In his research, Nordstrom discovered the building once housed Chicago's oldest Italian food importer for more than a century. 

The business specialized in importing pasta, olive oil, cheese and tomatoes from a family in Italy, according to Nordstrom's findings.

"The feelings were kind of mixed," Nordstrom said of finding the trunks that were left behind. "It was like, 'wow.' To some degree, especially when I saw the photographs and timepieces, you would think that someone would take those, but at the same time it's like time goes by and these things just slip through the cracks, forgotten."

That import company, founded in 1898, operates today under the name Marconi Foods.

Its giardiniera can be found on most grocery store shelves in Chicago.

The building at 710 W. Grand Ave. is being torn down. [Eric Nordstrom]

Through documents discovered in the trunks, Nordstrom was able to piece together a vivid narrative of the family business that arrived at 710 W. Grand Ave. via Sicily.

He discovered that the founder, Vincenzo Formusa, learned his family's trade of jewelry and watchmaking, which eventually led to the opening of the business.

Nordstrom notes that Formusa set up the city's first Italian food importing business and eventually occupied five buildings. The business moved to Des Plaines last year and is still run by the founder's granddaughter.

Nordstrom — who has operated Urban Remains in  West Town for 10 years — recently made it his mission to meticulously document his findings and conduct research on the buildings.

He documents them both in his blog, urbanremainschicago.com, and in his museum, BLDG,  accessible by appointment only.

"This would be much more of a common occurrence if there were more people like me out there who took the time to document it in one way or another versus doing a Craigslist ad saying 'fresh estate sale find,'" Nordstrom said.

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