Bellwood ice cream legend started in Little Italy

By: Chicago Sun Times – September 2009

In Italy, they know not of spumoni. “Spumoni? What is this? I have never heard of this,” says Marianka Campisi, of Bologna, a 25-year-old intern at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago. “I don’t think we have this in Italy.” Rather, the distinctive type of ice cream was invented in America by newly arrived Italian immigrants. But, we are getting ahead of the story, which begins not long ago in the frozen food aisle at Sunset Foods. “I’m getting spumoni,” I told my wife, in that way husbands have of automatically narrating their actions, so as not to risk doing anything unapproved. I love spumoni and didn’t expect resistance. But my wife regarded the container of Edy’s spumoni in my hand as if it were a dead kitten. “Not that spumoni,” she said. “I grew up in Bellwood. If you grew up in Bellwood, there is only Victor Lezza’s” I returned the Edy’s, and reached for a container of Lezza’s which, I saw from the label, indeed comes from the west suburb. Which piqued my interest. They’re making ice cream in Bellwood? Out front, Lezza Spumoni & Desserts looks like any small Italian bakery. A sign offers cakes for weddings and baptisms. Inside, glass cases display distinctive Italian cookies-amaretti, regina, quasimale-in the shapes of leaves, shells, hearts.

I sit down with Ed Lezza, the third generation Lezza to make spumoni in Chicago. His grandfather, Salvatore Lezza, left his hometown outside Naples and came to the West Side in 1905, where he formed a partnership with the man who created Ferrara Pan candy, to this day a big local candy company, maker of Lemonheads. “They were in business, Ferrara and Lezza,” says Lezza. “My grandfather was the baker, and Ferrara was the candy maker.” Soon the partnership extended beyond business. “My grandmother’s a Ferrara, Lucia Ferrara,” he says. Despite my wife’s belief that the company has been in Bellwood “forever,” its first 60 years were in Little Italy. Then Lezza’s got in the way of the University of Illinois.

“We probably still would have been down at Halsted and Taylor streets, but Circle Campus came down there and condemned the property,” says Ed Lezza. “We wanted to stay there and we were forced to move.” Salvatore Lezza passed the company on to his two sons, Jack and Victor-Ed’s Father. “I pulled this out of the safe,” says Ed Lezza. “It’s something precious to us. I wanted to share it with you.” Lezza displays a small notebook, filled with scrawled 75-year-old recipes, some jotted on the backs of Banco di Napoli Trust Company Bank deposit slips.

“We keep exactly as my grandfather had written it,” he says. “Everything the same.” The bakery kitchen is charmingly old school-marble tabletops, a cedar-lined cooler. “You don’t see them too much no more,” says Louie Lezza, Ed’s nephew and a fourth generation Lezza to make spumoni. Lezza spumoni is made up of five distinct “components.” Four flavors of ice cream-chocolate, strawberry, rum and pistachio-with a whipped cream center studded with candied fruit and wheat germ bits (taking the place of chopped cashews, the rare change in deference in nut allergies)