Tony Dinos, dead at 77, famed for chili at Bridgeport’s Ramova Grill

on Jun15

15 June 2017 | 10:30 pm

Tony Dinos fed generations of hungry people, politicians and White Sox fans and players at his Ramova Grill in Bridgeport, a greasy spoon fragrant with his famed chili’s secret spices, of which his family will divulge only one: cinnamon.

Mr. Dinos, who had lung cancer, died Wednesday. He was 77.

He was from Amorgos, a Greek island bright with the sun and blue sea. In his final hours, his wife and three children soothed him with its memory, telling him, “Go back to Amorgos. Go find your mother and father. Go lie on the beach, and eat figs all day long.”

For more than half a century, he dished up belly-filling eats at the diner at 3510 S. Halsted. Mr. Dinos prepared beef stew, pork tenderloin and chop suey, fried perch on Fridays and corned beef with cabbage around St. Patrick’s Day. He made juicy burgers and a “Good Morning Special” of eggs, meat, hash browns and toast.

Tony Dinos, in 2012, with his famous chili at the Ramova Grill, 3510 S. Halsted St. in Bridgeport. | Sun-Times files

If homeless people lingered at the door, he’d slip them sandwiches and coffee. He’d give neighbors, waitresses and customers the extra tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and green beans from the garden he planted in his backyard near 78th and Kenton. He helped purchase a home in Athens for his three sisters. And he used to donate money to his church in Amorgos so they’d have plenty of lamb on religious feast days.

His daughter Lori Sirounis worked three years at the Ramova, and “Not once did I see him be angry at a worker or customer,” she said.

He found his calling on a Greek cargo ship. His father died when he was 14, so young Tony had to help support his mother, sisters and little brother. He started sailing on freighters, including some owned by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. “He worked all over the world,” said his son Mark. “He would help out in the [ship] kitchen, and that’s where he discovered his love of cooking.”  

He arrived in America about 1960. That’s when his birth name, Tony Sinodinos, was shortened. His family thinks an immigration official lopped off a couple syllables. “I guess those customs guys would see those long names and somebody said, this [Dinos] will be easier for you,” said his son. He took a train to Chicago, where his uncle Pete Gertos ran the Ramova.

For decades, Tony Dinos owned the Ramova Grill, 3510 S. Halsted St. in Bridgeport. Many said his secret chili recipe was the best in Chicago. | Sun-Times archives

He started out washing dishes. Looking out the window one day, he saw a beautiful Greek-American girl, Liberty Sfondeles, walk past. “I saw her go by and smile. I liked her,” he told the Sun-Times’ Mark Konkol in 2012. “I asked her friend, ‘That girl involved with anyone?’ She say, ‘No.’ I asked how I can meet her.” 

Introductions were arranged through her mother, Lambrene Sfondeles, and Lambrene’s friend Georgia Antonopoulos. The two women sat directly behind them on their first date, at the Ramova theater next door to the grill. They married two months after they met in 1965.

He worked his way up to cook and eventually co-owned the diner with Pete’s nephew, Bob Gertos. 

The mustachioed chili master worked six days a week.

Mr. Dinos used to leave the house at 3:30 a.m. The Ramova opened at 5, and he had to prepare daily specials. “He used to come home late at night,” said his daughter Georgia Shizas. Her mother “would have food ready for him on the table, and she’d have a tub of warm water to soak his feet.”

When his son was slacking off in college, his father had him work the grill, a move Mark now considers a masterstroke at getting him to focus on studies.

“There were hundreds of pieces of bacon,” his son recalled. “It was broiling hot. Waitresses were calling in more orders. Your brain starts to scramble. I think I went into an anxiety attack. I tried to flip the eggs and I kept breaking the yolks. I turned to look at my dad and my face was like, ‘Help me.’ ’’

In a jiffy, “he pushed me aside, and within two minutes all the orders were cleared.”

Mr. Dinos’ customers included members of Chicago’s former First Family, the Daleys. In a Facebook post Thursday, Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley said “Tony was loved and appreciated by all the customers at the Ramova Grill.”

Tony Dinos. | Sun-Times archives

When the Ramova’s 2012 closing was imminent, the County Board sponsored a resolution commending the eatery for “what many believe is simply the best chili in Chicago.” Former first lady Heather Bilandic “went in and bought several quarts of chili to freeze,” Mark Dinos said.

After hanging up his apron, Mr. Dinos enjoyed watching “Bonanza” and White Sox games, and spending time with his five grandchildren. He used to raise money for student scholarships through the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. Mr. Dinos made his own delicious homemade wine.  On special occasions, he gracefully executed Greek folk dances.

Though he had one kidney, heart failure, and a bout 20 years ago with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,“He would always tell me he would keep fighting for me,” said his wife.

His work ethic was so strong, he announced–12 hours before he died–that he was going to climb out of bed. His lawyer son told him, “Dad, as your attorney, I’m advising you to lie back down.” Mr. Dinos chuckled. So did his family. “It was this special moment we had, laughing,” said Georgia Shizas.

In addition to his wife, children and grandchildren, he is survived by his sisters Maria Kariotis, Irene Maragos and Sofia Argiri. His brother Michael died before him.

Visitation is 4 to 9 .m. Sunday, with hymns and prayers at 7 p.m., at Palos Gaidas Funeral Home, 11028 S. Southwest Hwy., Palos Hills. A funeral service is planned at 10 a.m. Monday at Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, 11025 S. Roberts Rd., Palos Hills.

His last words, his family said, were “Thank you for everything.” 

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