A Sad Goodbye to Western Avenue Bread (Masi’s Italian Superior Bakery)

October 18, 2012 at 10:24 am

In addition to supporting eating foods that are grown on the land where we live, a lesser-known, but equally important function of The Local Beet has always been to further the idea that local food — regardless of the provenance of its ingredients — conjures a sense of place. A product is local in the sense-of-place sense when it is uniquely the expression an individual or a family, and has become such a tradition that it is associated with a place either because its made there or because it invokes a feeling of nostalgia that transports you to where you were when you ate that food. The way, perhaps, a sip of Wisconsin beer might reference a summer in Door County, or Italian ice on Taylor Street tastes like none other than you ever or will ever have tasted. In the literal and figurative sense of the word, the food tastes like a certain place. If that sounds too sentimental, then think about how a simple loaf of bread conjures part of a block on Western Avenue for generations of Italian families.

And that’s where Masi’s Italian Superior Bakery comes in. Unfortunately, they’re closing at the end of the year, as reported by Grub Street. Masi’s has a long history, going back to 1940, when Salvatore Masi, whose family had an Italian bakery in Queens and whose roots in bread-baking could be traced back to Naples, brought his skills and his family to a storefront on South Western Avenue in the Little Italy neighborhood in Chicago. For years, his bread had a following with Italians who lived in the area — and became known as “Western Avenue Bread” — but the customers steadily waned as Italians moved out of the old neighborhood. Some still made special trips, though, as Masi’s products held a special place in their hearts and minds, but even then, those folks steadily waned as time wore on.

In 2008, the Saccameno family bought the bakery and carried on Masi’s time-honored tradition. Despite having some of the best sheet pizza, Italian breads, and sandwiches in the city (as well as the nicest proprietors), Italian Superior Bakery is closing at the end of the year.  The Saccamenos said on their Facebook page:

It was our hope that we (the bakery) may be able to survive the incredible hardship the current economy has placed on us all. We know that many of you have struggled in your personal lives trying to manage one day at a time. We too at the Bakery have struggled very hard particularly in the past two years to manage this very historic and traditional business known to many as “Western Ave Bread”. Unfortunately, the decrease in the volume of sales coupled with the rising cost of goods needed to produce our offerings has just pushed our ability to remain a viable business.

Beyond these economic issues that we and many others have had to overcome, the ever increasing commercialization of food production in our society such as the offerings by the Walmart, Costco of the world and any of the number of fast food chain, have created a trend for purchasing goods out of convenience rather than purchasing those products that are handmade with quality materials and are rooted in Artisan and traditional methods. These changes in societal ways will be the demise of the mom and pop stores across our nation.

Although a sad eulogy to a beloved business, this is also a stern warning. If we don’t support places like Masi’s Italian Superior Bakery, our uniquely Chicago local, heritage traditions like Western Ave Bread will dry up.  Even more than that, we will miss out on the feeling that certain local foods connect us directly to a specific place.  Everyone in the country has Pepperidge Farm, but Chicagoans have — for only a little while longer — Masi’s bread. Go soon to understand what I mean.

Masi’s Italian Superior Bakery

933 South Western Avenue

Chicago, Illinois 60612