Gyro hero to stay in business

  • Written by Dermot Connolly


Photo by Jeff Vorva

Sandy DiGangi will not be selling her gyro restaurant and still plans on hosting free holiday meals for the poor.


By Dermot Connolly

Staff Reporter

Oak Lawn restaurateur Sandi DiGangi, known for providing thousands of free holiday meals to the elderly and underprivileged over the past five years, is recovering from a health crisis made her question the future of her Big Pappa’s Gyros restaurant, 10806 S. Cicero Ave.

But things have turned around for her since April, when DiGangi spoke at the Oak Lawn Village Board meeting about her plans to sell her business due to poor health.

“I got was misdiagnosed with throat cancer,” DiGangi said last week, explaining why she was considering the move. She also has battled infections and other complications since having her appendix removed, and spent several weeks in Advocate Christ Hospital.

“I’ve been through two major operations, but things are starting to look up,” she said last week. “Thanksgiving is a go, and Christmas is a go,” she added, referring to her Feed the Needy annual tradition of preparing and giving away thousands of turkey dinners with all the trimmings on both holidays. Donated toys are also collected and given away to children getting meals on Christmas.

Even when she was thinking of selling the business she founded with partner Eddie Memishi, her first concern was finding another location to prepare the holiday meals. She said several area VFW and American Legion halls had offered their kitchen space.

But that will no longer be necessary because Big Pappa’s is staying open now that her health is improving.

 “I got a bit lucky,” she said. “I’m still recuperating, but I am improving every day. The doctors haven’t cleared me to work full-time yet, so I am part-time for now.”

She credits her son, Anthony, 19, for working long hours every day to keep the business going in her absence. Her daughters, Nicolette and Mikey, also help out.

Her mission of feeding the hungry on holidays, and collecting toys for children is done in memory of her son, Gary Edward, 5, who died in a house fire in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood in 1995. Neighbors donated money for the funeral, and since then, she and her family have spent the holidays helping others.

DiGangi acknowledged that the reluctance of the Oak Lawn Village Board to approve a liquor license for a prospective buyer at an April 28 meeting now feels like “a blessing in disguise,” since she no longer wants to sell.

Many trustees expressed reservations about issuing the liquor license, because they were concerned about the business plan, and it was not even brought up for a vote. DiGangi had received a liquor license last year, allowing her to having gaming machines, but several trustees said in April that they had only approved it then because hers was an existing business and she had given so much for the community.

DiGangi said her phone was ringing off the hook when word got out that she was thinking of selling.

In a message posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, DiGangi expressed her thanks and explained why she has decided to stay in business.

I am so honored to have such great support from all of you. I thank you and my children thank you for supporting Big Pappa’s and for all the love and concern you have shown us. Oak Lawn is awesome and I am so proud and honored to meet and get to know so many wonderful people,” she said.

On May 16, the Swallow Cliff chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, based in Palos Heights,  presented her with an award for her service to the community.

“It was a blessed day. It was a beautiful day for all of us,” she said.

DiGangi also pointed out that she has a policy of providing free meals throughout the year to the needy. “This goes on 365 days a year. If someone comes in and is homeless or hungry and has no money, we will give them a meal.”

“It happens sometimes five to seven times a week,” she added. “Making sure someone has a good hot meal and a full stomach is more important than the money.”


Jeff Vorva's Im-PRESS-ions: Finally some good news in a bad story

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


Jeffs Col Impressions


Finally, there is a little something good to feel about in a feel-bad story.

A tragedy on Nov. 8, 2013 occurred in Worth when 18-year-old Brittany Wawrzniak was killed when she fell out of a moving car in the parking lot near the village’s boat launch.

It rocked a lot of people’s worlds.

A dead teenager is never a pleasant story and things escalated in the coming months when her family was upset with the way the police and village officials were handling the situation.

A pair of heated board meetings in April, 2014 resorted to name calling, yelling and people had to be frisked to get into one of them because of threats on social media. Family and friends vowed to come to every board until they were satisfied with the resolution. That didn’t happen.

The bottom line is did she jump or was she pushed?

The Brittany camp says she was pushed. Worth officials say otherwise. They say the case is closed and there are mountains of pages of the investigation available to anyone who wants to read them.

There are no winners here.

Family and friends lost a loved one at an all-too-young age. The cops and officials, who had to stay silent while the investigation went on, lost in the public relations battle while the family hurled accusations at them.

But on June 2, there was finally a little bit of positive news to come out of this.

The Worth board voted unanimously to allow a memorial bench to be built at the Worth boat launch at 115th Street and Beloit Avenue. The family will pay for it but the village will install it.

Brittany’s parents, Patrick Wawrzniak and Rebecca Tully showed up at the meeting. Patrick thanked the board and they both left and had no further comment after our correspondent, Sharon L. Filkins, approached them.

The atmosphere was chilly but Filkins said the brief public conversation between Mayor Mary Werner and the parents was “very respectful.’’

I wasn’t expecting a lovey-dovey reunion here. I wasn’t expecting smiles, high-fives or backslaps.

But given the powderkeg meetings from April, 2014, I wasn’t sure if a family member or friend was going to pop up and re-open some old wounds. That wouldn’t have been the time or place for it and I’m glad that didn’t happen.

So in the coming weeks, Worth Public Works personnel will be putting up a six-foot side wrought iron and rosewood bench in Brittany’s memory.

“It is just a peaceful place where people will be able to sit on the bench and enjoy the quiet,” Werner said.

Years from now, some people will see Brittany’s name and lament about the death of a teenager who was strongly loved by her family and friends. Some will not have known or forgotten the controversy surrounding her death.  This bench is going to have a lot of interesting history behind it.  

The family did the right thing by going through proper channels to get this done.

The village did the right thing by approving it.

It was the first good news to come from this story.


Could Evergreen Plaza look like this?

  • Written by Jeff Vorva





Photo courtesy of Lormax Stern Development Company

The Plaza, has finally been sold and will be torn down and one of the new owners, Lormax Stern, has developed malls in the Midwest including the Macomb Mall in Roseville, Michigan.


It’s official.

The talk is over.

The speculation, guesswork and rumors are put to bed.

It’s dotted-line time.

The large pimple in Evergreen Park known as the Plaza will finally be popped.

The Evergreen Plaza Mall was officially sold Friday and soon a redevelopment will begin, including tearing down the old place.

According to a news release, EP Mayor James Sexton said Lormax Stern Development, in partnership with DeBartolo Development, has purchased the mall, which was built in 1952 at 95th Street and Western Avenue.

Just four stores remain open and it’s been mostly a ghost town since 2013 and a thorn in Sexton’s side for many years before that.

“The Plaza is a significant part of our village, in terms of our history and economy,” Sexton said in a news release.  “This is a prime location and a great opportunity for developers and retailers. There’s a bright future for this property – one that will serve Evergreen Park residents and surrounding communities for decades to come.”

Plans call for the majority of the existing 800,000-square foot mall to be demolished and be replaced with a new, approximately 425,000-square foot open-air retail center on the 32-acre parcel.  Construction is anticipated to be completed in 2017. 

“The purchase has been closed and we are off and running,’’ Sexton said. “And while we aren’t at a point at which we can disclose specifics just yet, we have already had expressed interest from national retailers to become part of Evergreen Plaza. It will be a real win-win, providing jobs, an expanded property tax base and enhanced shopping choices for our region.”

This is the 10th redevelopment of a major retail mall undertaken by suburban Detroit-based Lormax Stern Development Company.

 The company recently redeveloped the Centerpointe Mall in Grand Rapids, Mich. and is finalizing the redevelopment of the Macomb Mall in Roseville, Mich.

Tampa, Florida-based DeBartolo Development, LLC is a one of the largest private real estate investment and development companies, specializing in opportunistic acquisitions and ground-up development of retail, multifamily, hospitality and mixed-use properties.

The company is currently developing a 1.4 million-square-foot regional shopping center in West O’ahu, the first new mall to be built on the island of O’ahu in over 30 years.



 Photo by Jeff Vorva

The Evergreen Plaza has been sold and will soon be torn down.


An icy reunion

  • Written by Sharon L. Filkins

Sharon L. Filkins


Patrick Wawrzniak and Rebecca Tully, parents of Brittany Wawrzniak, who died at the age of 18 in a tragic event in Worth on Nov. 8, 2013, were back in attendance at a board meeting at the Village Hall on Tuesday night.

This time it was icy as opposed to the red-hot fiery meetings they attended in the past as the family and friends were at odds with village officials and the police about the handling of the tragedy.

In contrast to their attendance at meetings in April, 2014, this meeting was calm and quiet, as they requested permission to erect a bench at the Worth Boat Launch at 115th Street and Beloit Avenue, in memory of Brittany.

Board members agreed unanimously in approving the installation of the approximately six feet wide, wrought iron and rosewood bench. “The family will purchase the bench, but the village’s Public Works Department will install it at the site,” said Worth Mayor Mary Werner.

Patrick publicly thanked the Mayor and the board and the couple left the meeting after the vote. They declined further comment when approached by a reporter. During one volatile meeting last year, both had plenty to say before, during and after the meeting, which was also covered by Chicago television statons.

Werner’s only post-meeting comment Tuesday was regarding the selected site for the bench.

"It is just a very peaceful place where people will be able to sit on the bench and enjoy the quiet.”

She added that the Wawrzniak case is closed and declined any further conversation on it.

Brittany was killed  when she fell from a moving car and struck the pavement. She was pronounced dead at Christ Hospital less than one hour later.

An investigation into her death resulted in tumultuous meetings with the Worth Village Board as the Wawrzniak family and supporters sought the truth about her death and accused the Worth Police Department and Village officials of not conducting an effective investigation.

Werner, who previously had come under profane attacks from Wawrzniak supporters in several board meetings in 2014, said Tuesday that the bench would be a very nice addition to the village.”

"The area there near the walking trails and boat launch is beautiful and very peaceful,” she said.

Reluctant beauty contestant

  • Written by Claudia Parker





   For a girl who prefers t-shirts and sweatpants over gowns and high heels, Ashley Gray did pretty well for herself in her first beauty competition.

Gray, 17, of Palos Hills, competed in the 2015 Miss Teen-Chicago Beauty Pageant on April 19 and won fourth runner up.

     The top placement among 165 girls in the pageant came as a complete shock to Gray, who graduated from Stagg High School earlier this week.

     “This is overwhelming,” said Gray. “I’ve never been in a beauty pageant before. A t-shirt and sweatpants is my favorite outfit.”

Those ranked in the top 10 are invited to compete in the 2015 National Competition, hosted in Orlando, Florida at the posh, Rosen Centre Hotel in December.

Gray said her family has always told her she would make a great model but she never took them seriously.

“I love sports. I’ve played volleyball, ran track and basketball; I started basketball in 6th grade and played through sophomore year. I had to stop due to a torn meniscus,” said Gray.

Actually, basketball is what connected her to this opportunity.

“One of my old teammates asked me to be in a prom fashion show at Hannah’s Boutique, in Palos Park. Her aunt is the owner and needed extra models.” Gray said, “I’d never been in a fashion show either. I told her ‘no’ twice, but, she’s my friend and I wanted to help her so I finally said, ‘okay.’”    

Trina Evans, a photo editor who serves in various other roles in the Miss Teen organization her organization looks for more than just whistles and bells.   

“Our slogan is ‘Pageantry with a Purpose.’ ’’ Evans said. “We are not a glitzy pageant, it’s not about expensive gowns, we’re looking for natural beauty.”

Apparently, what they were looking for, also caught the attention of a pageant coach, unrelated to Miss Teen, at Hannah’s Boutique prom fashion show.

“We were approached by a pageant coach who introduced us to the director of Miss Illinois United States,” Gray’s mother, Carmilla, said. “They suggested Ashley register for the Miss Teen United States pageant. We thanked them, it was humbling, but registration was expensive.”  

Hannah’s Boutique owner, Susan Shaban said, “The Director of Miss Illinois United States [Derrick Lee], he also handles Miss World United States. He and two pageant coaches were at our prom fashion show, there may have been more, it was busy. I had at least 90 girls here; about 30 were experienced pageant girls. It’s nice to have them; they help the girls who haven’t modeled before.”

Evans said Miss Teen doesn’t scout for talent; candidates’ names come by referral. The family is not sure how Miss Teen received Gray’s information but she was referred by someone who saw her at the prom fashion show.

“I received a letter from Miss Teen inviting me to a seminar to learn about their pageant,” Gray said.

The seminar provided prospective Miss Teen contestants with information about their pageant. Interested parties were then put through a screening process.

“We select about 50 percent of the candidates to compete,” said Evans.

“I was told they would get back to me within seven days but I heard from them within 24 hours,” Gray said. “I didn’t have to pay for anything, the local businesses in my community sponsored me.”

A few of those businesses included, Zacarelli’s Pizza, in Bridgeview, Durbin’s Pizza, in Palos Hills, State Farm agent, Laurie Evans, and Jimmy Jamm Sweet Potato Pies, in Chicago. Dashan Harris Designs sponsored her custom-made gown.   

She said her dream is to attend Duke University but for now, she plans to enroll at Moraine Valley College for her first two years while trying to decide on a specific field of study.

“I’d love a career working with kids. Since my freshman year I’ve been working with 4-7 year olds at Hickory Hills park district summer camps in Krueger Park. I’ve completed over 200 community service hours with those kids.” Gray said. “God’s got my whole life planned. Being in this pageant is evidence of that, everything happens for a reason. Look at how many doors opened just by saying yes to a prom fashion show.”

Gray said her faith is strong because of her mother Carmilla, father Richard Sr., sister Adorea and brother, Richard Jr.

“It is because of my family, especially my mother, and her words of wisdom and encouragement, that I am who I am today!” Gray said.