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For 26 years, Capt’n Nemo’s in Winnetka has been a comfort food sanctuary for hungry North Shore students, working men and women, and various other devotees of bountiful subs, hearty homemade soups, and a “secret sauce” that has been shipped across the United States.
Lou Ragusi, the man behind the local culinary landmark, died Nov. 18 at age 88.
The lifelong Winnetka resident opened the first Capt’n Nemo’s in Rogers Park in 1971, naming it for the submarine seafaring character in Jules Verne’s books. Opening up on Green Bay Road, down the street from New Trier High School, “was his idea,” said his son Steve.
“He got it running. All we had to do was not screw it up,” Steve said.
To that end, the menu remains largely unchanged, featuring favorite subs such as the Seafarer, Balboa, South Sea, Ham Dinghy and Spectacular.
And then there’s the real keys to success, Steve said.
“‘Don’t compromise quality and control the flavors,’ he would say. ‘You cook it, you make it, you make it consistently good, and the customer is always right.’” Steve said, remembering what his father told him.
Ragusi believed free soup samples were also important.
“‘Don’t be afraid to give,’ that was one of daddy’s sayings,” Steve added.
Ragusi was born and raised at the height of the Depression. His parents were immigrants from the Abruzzo region of Italy. His mother Erminia was a homemaker and his father Michael worked at the Winnetka Power plant (his name is on a plaque at the facility).
Ragusi attended Sacred Heart grade school and New Trier, and left before graduating to go to work. He was a delivery driver for Homer’s Ice Cream before serving as a welder in the Army during the Korean war. After studying cooking at the Wasburne Trade School, he worked at the Palmer House Hotel at the Hartford Plaza; he was general manager of the restaurant complex.
There were a few bumps along the way when he opened the original Capt’n Nemo’s in 1971 at 7367 North Clark in Chicago.
As Steve recalled it, on some days total sales were as little as $12.
But Ragusi believed in the product, and in 1973 got a federal trademark for Capt’n Nemo’s.
“He looked at it in the long, long, long view,” Steve said. “Now we own those words.”
They own the subsequent sale of hundreds of thousands of subs, as well.
Throughout his life, Ragusi possessed a formidable work ethic.
“He couldn’t stay away from work,” Steve said. “I used to say, ‘Daddy, you can go on vacation’ and he would day ‘I am on vacation.’ Another one of his sayings was ‘Do something, even if it’s wrong.’”
“He was a wonderful dad and a great influence on the planet,” Steve added. “He touched a lot of people in a supportive way.”
And “have no fear,” Steve posted in a company blog, “Nemo’s will still be here.”
Louis “Lou” Ragusi is survived by his wife, Lidia Ragusi nee Lattanzi; his children Sandra Ragusi (Al) Diaz, Michael Ragusi, Steven (Patricia Ellington) Ragusi and Mark Ragusi; and his grandchildren Mitchell, Monica, Erica and Quinn.