The hard and fast rule of the mob is that you don’t talk about it, especially to the women. But times have changed, and a handful of local women with connections to the Outfit, the Chicago Mafia, are doing more than just moving their lips.
While some residents would rather forget the countless crimes committed by the city’s most notorious gangsters, new light is being shed on Chicago’s dark and dirty history in a new reality show on VH1, “Mob Wives Chicago.”
“When you think about the mob, the first thing that comes to mind is either going to be John Gotti or Al Capone,” said “Mob Wives” producer Jennifer Graziano. “Obviously, New York was the first pick. That’s where I’m from, that’s what I know. Chicago, naturally, was the next city for [the show].”
Graziano began her franchise in April 2011 with the original “Mob Wives,” which featured six Staten Island women whose husbands or fathers have been imprisoned for crimes tied to the Mafia. Graziano, who is the sister of Renee Graziano, one of the New York “Mob Wives,” originally planned to write a scripted series based on her life growing up with her father, Anthony Graziano, a New York mobster who has been charged with various Mafia-related crimes.
After the popularity of shows like “Real Housewives,” Graziano said she envisioned a reality show format that would be easier to launch and have the ability to be franchised out to other cities.
“I had the cast right under my nose, so it was a no-brainer,” Graziano said of the Staten Island mob wives. “I explained to them that it wasn’t about the men, it was about how that lifestyle affected them and where they are in their lives mentally and emotionally because of it.”
Graziano has now brought “Mob Wives” to Chicago. She said the show is going to be a wild and crazy ride full of dynamic women with interesting mindsets.
The cast of Chicago’s “Mob Wives” is made up of five women whose fathers or husbands have ties to the Chicago Outfit. None of them have been shy about revealing their connection, according to VH1’s press release. Renee Fecarotta Russo’s uncle, “Big John” Fecarotta, was an alleged loan collector and hit man, before being gunned down in 1986 by fellow mobster Nick Calabrese. Nora Schweihs is the daughter of Frank “The German” Schweihs, a notorious hit man for the mob and who was rumored to be involved in the death of Marilyn Monroe. Schweihs, who died in 2008, allegedly had his remains confiscated by the government, which made Nora return to Chicago to attempt to find them. Other mob wives are more reluctant to discuss their family’s history, such as Pia Rizza, whose father was a “dirty Chicago cop who worked for the mob” and is now in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
The remaining two cast members are Christina Scoleri, whose father is Raymond Janek, a one-time thief and alleged fence for the mob, and Leah DeSimone, the “over-protected” daughter of William “Wolf” DeSimone, an alleged “associate” of the mob.
During the filming of the New York “Mob Wives,” Graziano said she dealt with Italian-Americans who were unhappy about the show. Some staged protests, and a few restaurant owners denied them access to film inside their businesses. Despite the resistance, Graziano was able to complete the first season of “Mob Wives,” which became a hit on VH1 and garnered positive reviews from some entertainment critics, like Entertainment Weekly’s
“I knew that there was going to be some people that were angry with me in the [Italian] community and the whole circle,” Graziano said. “They [should] realize that we aren’t giving away any secrets. We don’t have any secrets to give away. We aren’t talking about anything that’s not public knowledge.”
Public knowledge or not, it is clear that Chicagoans have also not embraced the reality show with open arms. Graceland Cemetery and restaurants like Gilt Bar, Lux Bar and Tavern on Rush have denied filming at their businesses, according to Graziano. She said Chicago as a whole has been even more resistant than New York and added that she wishes locals would realize she is not saying all Italians are in the mob or all Italians behave or act a
Louis Rago, president of the Italian-American Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, has been against the series since its beginnings in New York. He said he will continue to voice his opposition now that it has come to his city.
He said what angers him most is the continued Hollywood portrayal of Italian Americans in the media, from characters like Vinnie Barbarino in the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Joey Tribbiani of “Friends” and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”
According to Rago, the surge of popularity with reality TV has continually portrayed Italian-Americans in a negative light. He said cult classics like “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather,” have perpetuated the image that all Italian-Americans are affiliated with the mob to some degree.
“They have portrayed Italian-Americans as gangsters or buffoons,” Rago said. “Are they lovable characters? They may very well be, but they are still negative characters. I wouldn’t want to hold them up to my grandchildren as positive images.”
He said that now Italian-American kids are growing up watching these shows, thinking, “Why should I study? Why should I strive to do anything bigger?,” because they see celebrities like the cast of “Jersey Shore” and think they could make a living by being dramatic and rude-mannered.
“I remember Newton Minow (chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the 1960s) saying that television is a vast wasteland,” Rago said. “He should see it now. At least then they had people sitting down writing scripts.”
The “Mob Wives” series has particularly irked him, he said, because it is glorifying the mob and the lifestyle that comes with it.
“Five years ago, you’d be sitting in a corner if you were related to the mob,” Rago said. “You wouldn’t want to stand up and say that. It’s like hanging your
John Binder, author of “The Chicago Outfit,” which provides a detailed history of the Chicago Mafia, said he finds it bizarre that relatives of the members of the Outfit would come out publicly. He chalked it up to people wanting their “15 minutes of fame” and that the show falls in line with “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
Though he said he views the show as a publicity stunt, Binder could confirm the status of a few of the “Mob Wives’” ties to the Mafia.
Binder said Fecarotta was a juice-loan collector, meaning that he was responsible for collecting debts owed to the Outfit, and a hit man in the 1960s.
“If a guy didn’t pay off their loans, he would eventually kill him,” Binder said. “He became a full-fledged killer and [was] killed in an Outfit hit, which was part of the ‘Family Secrets’ trial in 2007.”
The “Family Secrets” trial, an FBI investigation of mob-related crimes in Chicago, also involved Schweihs, one of the men indicted as a defendant, according to Binder.
He could not confirm the history of Rizza’s “dirty Chicago cop” father, Janek and “Wolf” DeSimone, as he did not have any files on those members.
“If you are a daughter of a mob figure, you can certainly say what he ate for breakfast and what kind of pajamas he wore, or how he was as a dad—the personal side of it,” Binder said. “But they’re not going to know anything about [the Outfit] more than what they read in the newspapers.”
He said because the women involved in the show are not daughters of what he considers high-ranking mobsters, there has clearly been a selection process involved in the casting of the show. Most people from mob families, by and large, want nothing to do with the show because they would be shunned from their families, according to Binder.
“In the world of organized crime, you don’t talk to non-members about what you do, and that includes relatives,” he said. “The Outfit guys don’t come home and talk in front of their family about what they are doing. That’s a law in their world.”
Binder added that the Outfit of today is not nearly what it used to be in terms of being involved in the political system and the amount of money members pull in. Now they are heavily involved in various forms of gambling in northern Illinois, from betting on college and professional sports to running video-poker machines. The Outfit controls workers through labor racketeering and are involved in “juice lending,” in which interest is charged on loans, and the selling of narcotics, according to Binder.
His friend Matt Luzi is related to Frank LaPorte, a high-profile mobster who ran rackets, or illegal businesses, for the Outfit in the 1960s and early 1970s in Chicago’s South Suburbs and Northwest Indiana. Luzi was never fully aware of his great uncle’s involvement in the mob, as none of his family members spoke about it when he was a child. For 20 years, he dug up information on his family’s past and has since been researching the history of the Outfit along with Binder and Mars Eghigian, the author of “After Capone: The Life and World of Chicago Mob Boss Frank ‘The Enforcer’ Nitti.”
“I don’t agree with [pop culture] glorifying the mob,” Luzi said. “At their core, they were criminals and killed people. It’s not an image you would want to capitalize on. But on the other hand, you can’t ignore the reality that existed. I’ve always been more interested in the facts, and the whys and the hows, not the sensationalism of it.”
Graziano said the show is not meant to sensationalize the Outfit, but rather it is a way for viewers to peer into the lives of women who have previously kept mum about their family’s dealings.
“We are showing you things that are happening in real time against real newspapers and current events,” Graziano said. “It’s my family that it’s happening to. It could not be any more authentic.”