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
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.”