Eli’s Cheesecake Mourns the passing of Esther Schulman, our Chairman, the wife of our Founder, Eli M. Schulman and Mother of our President, Marc Schulman.
Esther N. Schulman, 1918-2009
Dynamic businesswoman played key role in husband Eli’s restaurant, cheesecake business
Helped husband draw politicians, stars to restaurant
By Rick Kogan Tribune reporter
September 2, 2009
As comfortable with celebrities and politicians as with her own grandchildren, Esther N. Schulman proved a dynamic businesswoman after the 1988 death of her husband, Eli Schulman, of restaurant and cheesecake fame.
Mrs. Schulman, 91, died Monday, Aug. 31, in her Chicago home after a long illness.
“Long before there was something called the ‘working mom,’ she was the working mom,” said her son, Marc, president and CEO of Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago. “She was mostly behind the scenes, working in the office all day, when she wasn’t focused on taking care of me. After my father died, she really took over all things at the restaurant and became the face of Eli’s. She did so with grace and enthusiasm.”
The daughter of Isadore and Sadie Nettis, she was raised on the city’s West Side, graduated from Marshall High School in 1936 and, while studying accounting at night, went to work at her father’s business, the California Ale & Beverage Co. in Chicago. <p >Shortly after the end of World War II, she was introduced by mutual friends to an older neighborhood resident, Eli Schulman, fresh from Army service as a mess sergeant. They married in 1948 in Chicago and together opened a grill at Sheridan Road and Argyle Street.
Her husband was a gregarious host and something of a risk taker. In 1962, he decided to open Eli’s Stage Delicatessen on Oak Street, in the competitive Rush Street night-life area.
It quickly became a draw for singles, the Gold Coast set and many stars of the era (Woody Allen, Bobby Short, Barbra Streisand and Shecky Greene among them), who would drop by for late-night suppers after performing at Mister Kelly’s and other nearby clubs.
In 1966, Eli and Esther opened Eli’s the Place for Steak in what was then a luxury hotel called the Carriage House on Chicago Avenue.
“I always wanted to be something more than ‘a salami surgeon.’… I wanted a white-tablecloth place,” Eli Schulman said before his death.
That’s what Eli’s was, a stylish and sophisticated restaurant that quickly became a gathering place for luminaries from the worlds of sports, show business and politics, especially politics, drawn as much by the food as by the personality of the owner and his wife.
The Schulmans took a special liking to a young federal attorney named Jim Thompson, even printing and distributing buttons that said, “Big Jim Can Get the Job Done.”
There was a family touch to some items on the menu, which featured calves liver Eli, chopped steak Esther and shrimp a la Marc. The most renowned item was the cheesecake, which became so popular that he started selling it to grocery stores in the early 1980s.
Today Eli’s Cheesecake Chicago operates out of a Northwest Side factory, which bakes more than 18,000 cheesecakes and desserts daily for sale throughout the country and internationally.
After her husband’s death in 1988 and until the restaurant closed in 2005 to make room for the new home of Children’s Memorial Hospital, Mrs. Schulman took a more prominent role. She worked in the office during the days and in the dining room at night, charming a wide variety of guests, from tourists to President Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra.
She was also involved in the fundraising efforts to rebuild Seneca Park and create the Eli M. Schulman Playground, both directly across Chicago Avenue from the site of Eli’s.
In her later years, Mrs. Schulman enjoyed spending afternoons in the park, watching children play. She also supported hundreds of local civic and charitable groups with donations of desserts and money.
Mrs. Schulman is also survived by three granddaughters.