ULTIMATE TOPPING: Chicago Jew Ivan Himmel has led a fascinating life. And now his Gino’s East restaurant is out with kosher deep dish pizza

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

In an upstairs booth of his Gino’s East restaurant off the Magnificent Mile, Ivan Himmel sampled his new line of kosher pizza, the preferred crust melding seamlessly with sauce, cheese and spinach.

This meal went down a lot easier than the pork Himmel was tricked into eating as part of a prank at summer camp in Wisconsin more than eight decades ago. Between bites of the new twist on pizza, which he and son Jeff worked on for years, Himmel engaged with his soft-spoken style in the lively art of conversation. That was in stark contrast to the dead silence his father imposed on the long ride back to their Englewood home after that ultimate non-kosher imbibing.

The tasty pizza, just introduced into supermarkets, and the accidental consumption of treif represent bookends to Himmel’s time on Earth, spanning 91 years in which variety was the spice of his life. He was a young graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, eventually flying catapult planes off a cruiser. He built homes as part of the post-war suburban boom. Later he segued into a surprise role as a pizza king in a city that invented the deep-dish version of the adopted American casual-dining staple.

Another chapter is surely left to be written. Born in 1926, Himmel firmly believes you got to move it or lose it.

“Don’t ever retire,” was his professed secret to long life. “I go to work every day of the week.  When you stop caring and being active and having discussions, reading books, you’re gone.

“Every cab driver I go with, I give him that advice:  don’t stop working.  Every friend that I ever had, bar none, retired, and they’re all gone. And they’re long gone.”

Himmel has just a short commute from his Gold Coast home to either his River North corporate office or Gino’s East. But it’s the movement of body and soul, along with the enthusiastic two-way greetings with restaurant employees among others in his daily rounds which provide the impetus for a tenth decade of vitality.

What Himmel has proven is that’s never too early or too late to reach for a goal. He was just 16 when he desired the appointment to Annapolis. He had to wait a year until he was legally of age, gaining admission via a local congressman’s recommendation. Himmel wondered as a young veteran whether he should join the family’s longtime furrier business.  He was pointed to homebuilding instead. And in his late 80s, he and Jeff Himmel, 68, experimented ceaselessly to find the right combination of ingredients and preparation – remember the crust — that would make their kosher pizza taste just like Gino’s East’s mainstay brand.

He was relatively late to the traditional Chicago pizza competition. But the race doesn’t always belong to the swiftest. Ike Sewell famously invented deep-dish pizza in 1943, and marketed the pies at Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due in River North. The Malnati family branched off from Sewell’s, building their own pizza empire via the Lou Malnati’s chain. Giordano’s also attained the high ground throughout the area. And via his 1994-founded Bravo Restaurants, for which he serves as chairman, Himmel and son control the  worldwide rights to the Gino’s East and Edwardo’s Restaurant concepts as well as Ed Debevic’s, Eduardo’s Enoteca, and Mitchell’s Chicago.

“I’ve never made a pizza in my life,” said Himmel. But he professed to know what a good one tastes like, and how to market it. A real-estate attorney by profession, Jeff Himmel also taught himself the pizza business after the father-and-son duo acquired the original Gino’s East at the close of the 1980s.

“Don’t cut corners,” Ivan Himmel said of the First, and Last Commandment, of pizza-making. “Do it this way. Don’t be changing the recipe. We don’t care about our competitors. They have their show and we have our show.”

Now the Himmels have expanded into the frozen kosher pizza line, prepared in a dedicated kitchen – Ivan Himmel declined to say exactly where – separated from the non-kosher kitchens of the restaurants.  Chicago-area supermarkets are stocking the product.

Himmel maintained a kosher household most of his life. He also served on 16 boards of charities, mostly Jewish and focusing on education. Given his Jewish activism, Himmel, a long time member of the Conservative Anshe Emet synagogue, long desired a kosher product from Bravo Restaurants.  

“I’ve tried and failed several times to make an acceptable (kosher) deep dish,” Himmel said. “You can take all the same ingredients and bake them all together. I can’t tell you how many – 1,000 or more – that we made with the same ingredients, but with different temperatures. We couldn’t get it to be like a regular (Gino’s East pizza).

“It took us over a year until we said that’s it.  We’d make product, we’d sample it, or say it’s too oily, or the cheese is a problem. Finally (the finished product was) when we couldn’t tell the difference between the kosher and a regular pizza. I would challenge anybody to differentiate it between this product and the product made by hand (at the restaurants).”

The taste-testing required perfection of the crust, a must for Himmel. Some deep-dish pizza lines have a tall, vertical wall of crust as the border of the pie, then a quick drop to a “moat” of dough and a thin layer of cheese before the “meat” of the pie with its combination of ingredients rises and is accessed.  But the Gino’s East kosher crust doesn’t present this barrier, sloping almost immediately into the cheese-and-sauce construction.

“I see people eating pizza and leaving (the crust),” Himmel said. “When I eat a deep-dish pizza, I eat it from the outside-back. This crust is a big part of what makes our pizza different and good.”

Sure enough, Himmel will instruct a wayward customer on the proper way to eat his pizza, crust-forward.

The Himmels required another half-year of development before they could take the pizza to market. Rabbis were involved in the final stages of development, from taste-testing to preparation to freezing. A final test was serving samples to Gino’s East customers, who confirmed they did not taste the difference with the traditional recipe.

Bravo Restaurants had a frozen foods division with an entrée into supermarket chains.  The official debut was on April 17. Himmel said Brooklyn supermarkets were the first expansion of sales outside the area, with Florida the next planned area for distribution.

The entire process was a labor of love compared to the disaster the certified-kosher Himmel experienced at age 6 at Wasserman’s camp in Wisconsin. Sitting down to dinner, Himmel asked a fellow camper the identity of the piece of meat on his plate. He was told it was turkey. Only later did Himmel’s brother and cousins inform him he was had.

“I went over to the kid who was with other kids, laughing,” he recalled. “I smacked him in the mouth and knocked out a tooth.  It was a prank. My dad (Louis Himmel) had to drive 300 miles in 1932 on the (two-lane) roads. He didn’t get out of the car. The owner of the camp put me in the car. We drove home, and he didn’t utter a word to me. I was dying. But I shouldn’t have hit him.”

Himmel had to save his fists to get through real life back in Englewood. He recalled having fights every day, Jews vs. gentiles, walking past a Catholic school. “In Englewood you had to be tough,” he said.

Emerging unscathed, Himmel attended Parker High School before getting his appointment to the Naval Academy as World War II raged. He recalled that while gentile classmates attended chapel on the grounds of the academy, he and the few other Jewish students “marched out” to a synagogue in the city of Annapolis.

“I took the hazing,” he said. “I don’t think it was any worse for the Jewish kids. And then I did the hazing as an upperclassman.”

Upon graduation, Ensign Ivan Himmel was posted on the light cruiser Providence, in the Atlantic.  He served eight years, eventually leaving as a lieutenant. While on board his ship he took flight training, piloting one of two catapult planes off the ship. Unlike an aircraft carrier, Himmel could not land back on the ship. Instead, the plane alighted on the water via skis and was hoisted back aboard.

Once he mustered out, he inquired about joining the 140-year-old family furrier business. The Himmels had emigrated early on as German Jews.

“My dad taught me how to match furs, sew furs,” he said of his after-school job. “When I was 8, I made a coat for my sister. But when I came out of the Navy, I went to my dad and said, ‘OK, Dad, here I am.’  He said, ‘You’re not working here.’” He said this is a dying business. You’re building houses. I said, ‘Dad, I know how to point an eight-inch gun, I know how to do boilers, but I don’t know anything.’ He said you’re an engineer, you’ll learn.”

Himmel went to the downtown library to spend two weeks reading every “how-to” book on building homes he could get his hands on. He got into the business in the right place at just the right time. Fellow veterans were establishing their Baby Boom families in the 1950s and needed housing in the expanding suburbs. Himmel set up his Maritime Construction Co., serving the South Side, south suburban and Northwest Indiana markets.

“I loved it,” he said. “I couldn’t have made more money. The only thing you had to do is get the material. It was in short supply and you needed ‘sources.’ The permits were nothing in those days.”

All the while, Himmel attended DePaul Law School, obtaining his legal sheepskin that proved handy on the job. “I got tired of paying the lawyers for closings,” he said. Benefiting from the golden years of American homebuilding, kibitizing in the restaurant business was the furthest thing from his mind.  “It wasn’t on purpose,” he said.

A friend owned a McDonald’s franchise in Louisiana. Calling Himmel one day, the friend asked him to advise a nephew on his own franchise dreams.  Himmel helped him scout locations and then built some 16 to 18 restaurants.  After a while, the franchise owner opted to sell out – to Himmel.

Eventually the chain morphed into both the Edwardo’s stuffed-pizza chain and the Fifties-themed Ed Debevic’s restaurants. Then, by his memory in 1987, Himmel fielded a call from the California-based owner of Gino’s East, which had been opened at 160 E. Superior St. in 1966 by two taxi drivers, Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli, and a friend, George Loverde. The original owners held on to the restaurant through 1984.

The caller pitched ownership of Gino’s East. Himmel liked the numbers, and a deal was struck over the phone. “He had his numbers, and was all good,” Himmel said.  But he suggested to the owner since Rich Melman was managing Gino’s East, the restaurant should be offered to Melman first. Melman apparently had already rejected a sale offer, but Himmel told him to try one time.

Himmel stuck his nose into some heavy business politics. When the owner showed up at Himmel’s office at 10 a.m. the next day, he said Melman claimed Himmel would never close the deal.

“(Melman) thought he could scare this guy,” Himmel said. “But we shook hands. I said to draft a contract. This fellow wanted to do business with me. We had a closing in another seven days.”

He recalled the purchase price was “maybe 5 million…I thought it was a good deal.”  Just before the closing, though, Melman made an attempt to get Himmel to flip Gino’s East to him. Himmel declined.

In the meantime, Himmel claimed Melman transferred all the Gino’s East workers to his other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants.  “He leaves this place naked – he didn’t own it,” Himmel said. “He thought he could disrupt the deal. I had maybe 16 or 17 Edwardo’s at the time. So I pulled in workers from those restaurants. Within a month, half the people (Melman) took came back and asked for their jobs. I took them back.”

After going through two presidents of his restaurant company, Himmel eventually named his attorney-son to run the show, relieving him of unwanted burdens.

“There’s two things I want you to do because I don’t want to do them: insurance and taxes. I’m a cash guy,” Himmel said.

And now a kosher pizza guy. The chalked-on graffiti on the Gino’s East walls remains the same. So does the informal Hall of Fame of photos of celebrities, all the way to Barack Obama, who have eaten his pizza. And most of all, the taste is the same.

Through trial and error, Himmel took the money line straight from “Fiddler on the Roof:”

“Tradition.”

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