These Days

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Juan-Elias Riesco Continues to Inspire His Community's Creativity

Photos by Michael Salisbury  •  Interview by Eric Montanez

Whether it’s serving food at Nini’s Deli, or bringing the city together with his brand Chicago Native, Juan-Elias  Riesco is one of the many bright spots in Chicago impacting the city on a daily basis. “I’m trying to be an example of service. I want people to say ‘Juany and his staff served people with joy, passion, and a smile on our face.’” This mindset is what has turned Nini’s Deli from being a local mom and pop shop into a staple of Chicago food and culture. The journey to this point was not always easy or clear as it took a long peculiar road to get Nini’s where it is today.

Juany grew up between Chicago’s Uptown and West Town neighborhoods, taking an interest in skateboarding and graffiti at an early age. His early years found Juan on the brink of trouble and also at the same time excelling at the arts in school. This path led him to San Francisco to pursue his creative passions. While there, Juany immediately got a job in the art scene which lead to him dropping out of college to pursue his creative craft full time.  As Juany started making a name for himself on the west coast, his progress came to a screeching halt in early 2013 when his father became ill and the responsibilities of Nini’s Deli fell on his shoulders. “I had so much fun in San Francisco, I didn’t really want to go back to Chicago. I remember thinking that I was coming home to run a boring old family business.”

With all the stress of his world weighing on him, Juan recalls September 2013 as a pivotal moment in his life, the moment when he met God and started living his life through him. “I had my hand in a bunch of things, but it didn’t fulfill me. Until that moment, I was really unsure about who I was and my identity. God brought me insight into my life, I knew I needed to be faithful to God and everything would follow. Everything changed, my attitude and the way I spoke to people.” Juany remembers “I grew up behind the counter. Business has been in my blood from a young age, but I was not able to channel it until that moment and I decided to give my all to Nini’s. It took a death of my old self for me to achieve success.” “I remember asking God why, but he told me he was going to open bigger doors for me.” With his trust fully in God and his plan, it was full speed ahead to turn his family business into a powerhouse.

Riesco built the foundation of the new Nini’s Deli through his connections around the city and his family who supported him.  “You have to start with your friends and family and help them build your community.” Thanks to growing up in the cities arts circles, Juany’s connections with locally well-known artists like Vic Mensa, Towkio and Joey Purp, amongst others, helped push the Nini’s brand regularly in the early years.  “I wanted my friends to come to my shop and eat and I would take care of them. “However, the blessing of having famous friends post about Nini’s Deli had pros and cons in the early days, as the restaurant saw itself become a spot for people to see who else would walk through the door instead of customers coming for the food. “The more my friends posted, the more people were there to see who visited. The first few years my homies helped a lot, but I wanted to push the proper narrative. Nini's will forever have its creative feel and artistic element to it, but I wanted it to stand on its own.” It was at this moment Juan consciously started to shift the culture of Nini’s from a place to possibly see local celebrities to a restaurant with the best food and experience in the city.

“The food at Nini’s is just as much full of flavor as it is history.” With his family’s Mexican, Cuban, and Middle Eastern decent, Juany began experimenting with his menu to set himself apart. “We wanted to make this a never before seen cuisine” The first recognition of this was in the Chicago Tribune’s feature on Nini’s Falafel tostada, a dish that first put his Nini’s food on map in the local news. From there, Nini’s success started to snowball rapidly with features on Chicago’s Best, The Hundreds, Thrillest and other local and national media platforms highlighting Nini’s food and marking it as one of the hottest spots in Chicago. Although the food may be out of this world, the key to Nini’s success according to Juany is the service. “The fun part about Nini’s is everybody gets the same treatment. Food doesn’t taste the same to everybody, everybody likes coffee a different way, but everybody enjoys to be served. One thing that will keep you around is a joy and passion for service. Serving others will take you far.”

As Nini’s continued to grow, Juan was still working with art and clothes in the background. “When I got Nini’s I wanted to stay true to myself and started making shirts on the side. One day I told my friend about the ‘Chicago Native’ name and he told me it was a great idea.” Shortly after, Juan reached out to some friends he knew with screen printing equipment to make the brand's first piece. Once it was completed he posted it to his personal Instagram and it blew up in front of his eyes. “I remember I only had 200 followers back then and when I posted the first shirt I got over 300 likes.” Taking things slow while also building the hype, Juan began to seed special one-of-one pieces to is friends around the city. Months later, on Black Friday 2014, the first Chicago Native drop was made available to the public.

Even after the first initial drop, the vision of Chicago Native’s future was still not clear to Juany, but he saw this as a positive thing. “Sometimes it’s good to make things and let your creations speak to you. I did Chicago Native because it was on my heart, I wanted to make something." Though well-received from its inception and despite a consistently high demand, the last 3 years have seen only a handful of releases from the brand as he decided to put it on the back burner to build up Nini’s and his reputation with the city. “I needed to give my brain to Nini’s and grow that. Once I built up Nini’s more people wanted to see what else I had up my sleeve. Chicago needs people who are transparent and who they can relate too. I had to show the city my dedication to Nini’s in order for people to invest in me and the Chicago Native brand.”

Today Chicago Native stands as a brand that brings Chicago’s creative community together under the guise of showing pride for their city. In the beginning Juany recalls Chicago Native did not carry any meaning or backbone,"I didn’t know its purpose at first but over the years it’s shown me what it’s about. It’s more than a two word slogan, it’s a platform to unite the different artists around the city. I want to bring talented people who have never met before together.” "Herstory", Chicago Native's latest collection, is inspired by a story Riesco's mother told him about her memories of watching the Sears Tower be built while she was growing up. Juan was able to bring this story to life and make it something his customers can wear with pride. For the first time ever, Chicago Native has a clear vision of it's future and a longterm plan on paper, and we couldn't be more excited to see what's to come.

As for the future of Nini’s, Juany continues to try to make improvements to his business and willingly serving the community on a daily basis.  For himself personally, Juany continues to be inspired by his peers in the city and it pushes him to achieve the highest success for himself.  “There’s a lot to be inspired by, a lot of people are finding their thing in the city.” With Nini’s Deli and Chicago Native, Juan is giving back to his city and communities in a way that not only makes an impact but sets examples for others. Whatever the future holds for Juany, we and a growing number of Chicagoans, will be here rooting for him.

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