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Joseph Zucchero, whose Chicago sandwich shop inspired ‘The Bear,’ dies at 69

This photo provided by Christopher Zucchero shows Joseph Zucchero, the founder of the Chicago Italian beef shop that inspired FX’s "The Bear."Uncredited/Associated Press

Joseph Zucchero, a co-founder of the popular sandwich shop that inspired the acclaimed FX restaurant drama “The Bear,” and where much of the series was filmed, died March 1 at a hospital in Chicago. He was 69.

His death was confirmed by his son, Christopher Zucchero, an owner of Mr. Beef, the family’s restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, who said a cause was not known.

The restaurant specializes in the Italian beef sandwich, a Chicago classic made with thin-sliced roast beef and giardiniera or roasted peppers. All of that is typically piled on a sandwich roll, and it is either drizzled with or dipped in beef juice.

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“He loved being there,” Joseph Zucchero’s son, Christopher, said of his father. “He was there day and night.”

Photos of various famous guests and celebrities hang on the wall of Mr. Beef.Anthony Vazquez/Associated Press

To create “The Bear,” a series about a young chef who leaves a career in New York’s high-end restaurant scene to run his family’s sandwich shop, FX shot inside and outside Mr. Beef, fictionalized as the Original Beef of Chicagoland in the show. It also created a replica of the restaurant’s kitchen in a Chicago studio, Mr. Zucchero’s son said.

The series, which premiered on Hulu last summer, drew acclaim from food writers and restaurateurs. And in a fine example of life imitating art that imitated life, its success led to a nationwide surge in demand for the Italian beef sandwich, including at Mr. Beef itself.

“Mr. Beef’s always going to be attached to that, and we’re very grateful for that,” Christopher Zucchero said of the TV series. “They’re together. It’s symbiotic for sure, but I don’t want it to overshadow what my dad did.”

Joseph Zachary Zucchero was born Feb. 21, 1954. He grew up on Chicago’s northwest side and started his career as a butcher, Christopher Zucchero said.

In the late 1970s, Joseph Zucchero and his brother, Dominic, opened Mr. Beef on North Orleans Street in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, a once-gritty area that has since been heavily gentrified.

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On a visit to the restaurant in the mid-1990s, a New York Times reporter found customers eating $3.50 Italian beef sandwiches at a Formica countertop near an autographed picture of Frank Sinatra. The short menu posted above the grill was not really necessary because virtually everyone ordered the same thing.

“You want a hot dog, you go to a hot dog stand,” Mr. Zucchero said. “You want a beef sandwich, you come here.”

In addition to his son and his brother, Mr. Zucchero is survived by his wife, Camille; his daughter, Lauren; and his sister, Claudine Grippo.

Mr. Zucchero was a movie fan, his son said, and his restaurant had admirers in Hollywood. Actor Joe Mantegna and comedian Jay Leno “would come in all the time,” Christopher Zucchero said. He said that he has been friends with Christopher Storer, who created “The Bear,” since the two were in kindergarten and that they spent time at Mr. Beef as children.

During filming, the older Zucchero visited the movie studio on Chicago’s West Side where Storer’s team had built a replica of his restaurant. What he saw made his jaw drop.

“I mean, from the floor to the ceiling to the countertops to the equipment,” he told NPR last year, “you actually walked inside and walked into Mr. Beef.”