BRIDGEPORT — Years ago, when the African-American employees of the nearby Spiegel warehouse didn't have many neighborhood places to turn to, they had Johnny Veliotis' business as a welcoming spot.
Sunday, the workers of the long-shuttered Bridgeport warehouse will return to the area to honor Veliotis, the longtime owner of Johnny O's hot dog stand who died in July at 85. The neighborhood icon's life will be celebrated at a memorial from 1-6 p.m. Sunday at Donovan Park, 3620 S. Lituanica Ave.
"Johnny O was an icon," said Henry Ortiz, longtime friend and employee of Veliotis'. "He was known from the upper echelon to the lower. He had a big heart."
Veliotis operated Johnny O's, 3465 S. Morgan St., from the late '70s until his death. He became a neighborhood "character" but more importantly a benefactor, helping those less fortunate, sponsoring sports leagues and local organizations as well as mentoring many neighborhood kids, said his son, Peter Veliotis.
His impact on the community could reasonably be measured by the crowd that turns out Sunday. Speakers at the memorial will include local officials, former Deering District police officers and the leaders of groups that Veliotis championed, Peter said.
"He's helped so many people out," Peter said. "I wanted to celebrate his life. There's going to be a lot of people there. I think he would love this."
In fact, Peter knows his dad would be happy with the memorial. Peter said he had the opportunity to talk to his dad about funeral arrangements, and that his dad wasn't into the idea of a traditional burial.
"This is the official ceremony," Peter said. "We didn't want the typical, depressing wake. I talked to him about this, and he said, 'That's a good idea.'"
Veliotis began selling hot dogs from a cart when he was 12 years old.
He expanded to two carts and opened his first restaurant, called Johnny O's Famous Beef Stand, at 812 W. 31st St. He owned several other restaurants throughout the years.
Johnny O's became famous for its "Mother-in-Law," a tamale served on a hot dog bun with chili, onions, tomatoes and sport peppers. The sandwich has earned Veliotis' restaurant spots on television programs like TLC's "Best Food Ever" and WGN's "Chicago's Best" for years.
Veliotis was also a singer in his early years, recording a few records and even signing the National Anthem at old Comiskey Park in 1980.
Community members are invited to join the memorial Sunday at Dononvan Park. Organizers ask that attendees bring chairs and some refreshments. Some food and drink will be available, and a jazz band will be on hand. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page here.