CHICAGO — Nello V. Ferrara, who created the iconic Lemonhead and Atomic FireBall candies for the Ferrara Pan Candy Co. that was founded in Chicago by his Italian immigrant father Salvatore in 1908, has died. He was 93.
Ferrara, chairman of the candy company, died of cancer Feb. 3, in his River Forest, Ill., home, said his son, Salvatore Ferrara, the company’s president and chief executive officer.
A native of Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, Ferrara graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep and Loyola University before earning his law degree from the DePaul University College of Law in 1942.
After passing the bar exam, Ferrara enlisted in the Army during World War II, where his legal training landed him a position in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. After the war ended he was stationed in Tokyo and served in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Ferrara started his own law practice upon returning to Chicago, and also began working part time at Ferrara Pan. He soon folded his practice, however, and joined the family business full time.
At Ferrara Pan, he invented some of the company’s well-known brands and built the company into a pillar of the Chicago area’s longstanding candy tradition, along companies such as Brach’s Confections and the William Wrigley Jr. Co.
The company, now in west suburban Forest Park, stayed local even as others took their operations elsewhere.
In 1951, Ferrara was one of the founders of the Villa Scalabrini Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Northlake, Ill. To help pay the mortgage on the property, Ferrara and his partners organized an annual fundraiser at the Lyric Opera and invited stars such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Connie Stevens and Jimmy Durante to perform.
Sinatra and Ferrara grew acquainted and formed a friendly singing rivalry backstage at the Lyric Opera. They also performed an impromptu duet after a chance meeting at a restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif.
“My father sang every day of his life,” Ferrara said. “He loved to sing.”
Ferrara’s business ideas were often drawn from the circumstances of his life, his son said. He may have added the fiery twist to the Atomic FireBall because of the spicy Asian cuisine he ate overseas while in the Army, his son said.
Ferrara was honored as a Knight of Malta by Pope John XXIII in 1963, and in 1971, received the Israeli Prime Minister’s Medal for his contributions to Israel’s economic development.
In 1974, Ferrara was inducted into the National Confectionary Sales Association’s Candy Hall of Fame, and was remembered as a genial colleague in the city’s candy business community.
“He was nothing but a gentleman to me,” said Rick Blommer, whose grandfather, Henry, founded the Blommer Chocolate Co. with his two brothers in 1939.
“They were really good friends during their day, and helped pioneer to make Chicago kind of the candy capitol of the U.S.,” Blommer said, referring to Ferrara and his grandfather.
“He always treated his employees with total respect,” said Mark Puch, president of Logan Square’s Primrose Candy Co.
“We have employees’ children who work here, and they’re named after my father,” Salvatore Ferrara said.
Ferrara hosted large family dinners at his home every Sunday.
“He knew how to love each one of his children and each one of his grandchildren in the very unique way that each one of them needed to be loved,” his son said.
Other survivors include Ferrara’s wife of 63 years, Marilyn; a sister, Florence Stillo; daughters Serajean Alioto and Nella Davy; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.