Thomas Balistreri, Sr. was born on November 26, 1909, in the small fishing village of Santa Elia, Sicily to Salvatore and Rosario Balistreri. Thomas was the fourth of six children. As a boy, Tom grew up fishing on the Mediterranean Sea and farming in the olive and lemon groves.
At the age of 17, before Tom was old enough to be forced into Mussolini’s army, he left Italy for America to meet his father, Salvatore, and his brothers, Tony and Frank. When he arrived in the United States, he moved into Milwaukee’s Third Ward in a home that his father and brothers were sharing. Tom’s first job in the U.S. was working in a macaroni factory making pasta.
Tom’s Uncle George and father had been cultivating a successful wholesale fruit and vegetable trade in Milwaukee – peddling produce by cart. When George returned to Italy, Tony took over the business. He would buy produce on Broadway, known as commission row, or travel down to Chicago’s commission houses to purchase goods. The demand eventually became so great for the quality produce and service that Tony provided, that he asked his brother, Tom, to join him in the business.
In May of 1926 Tony, Tom and their father opened the first Sendik’s store on the southeast corner of Oakland Avenue and Capitol Drive in Shorewood. Three years later, on July 4, 1929, the three teamed up again to open a second store in Shorewood on Downer Avenue.
As the Great Depression began to take hold, the Balistreri family banded together. Tom’s brother, Frank, who was an engineer, came into the business after his employer leapt from an open window to end his financial troubles. Brother, Ignatius, was a bricklayer and joined his father and brothers in the business when he was laid off. The youngest brother, Joe, also entered the business at this time. Their mother worked in the business as well – handling the office work.
Over the next few years, the family worked together not only to survive the many challenges of the economic climate, but also to cultivate a wide cross section of customers by guaranteeing quality merchandise – a reputation they earned more than 75 years ago and one that is still intact today.
Together the family bought the land where the Oakland Avenue store stands today and much later Tom purchased a parcel of land in Whitefish Bay on the corner of Silver Spring and Lake Drive. At that time, Whitefish Bay was sparsely populated compared to Shorewood and was not considered by Tom’s brothers to be a good location for a store.
In 1949, however, the Silver Spring store was established. Its opening marked the retirement of Frank and Joe from the family business and created separate legacies for the children of Tom, Tony and Ignatius.
Tom took ownership of the Silver Spring store, Tony operated Downer Avenue and Ignatius ran the Oakland Avenue store. Although the stores share a common name, from that point forward, the Sendik’s stores have been independently owned and operated.
Ignatius continued to operate the Oakland Avenue store until he became ill and his sons took over. Ignatius died in 1971. His sons, Ted and Steve Balistreri, then owned and operated the store until 1998, when they sold the right to operate the business to a non-family member.
Tony, who legally took the last name of Sendik, operated the Downer Avenue store with his son Sal. Tony stayed active in the business until his death in 1992. Today Sal’s sons, Tony and John, operate the business.
Thomas Balistreri, Sr. and his wife, Margaret took over the fledgling Silver Spring store. Tom concentrated his efforts on establishing the business by buying and selling the best produce while Margaret did the bookwork for the store. In 1935 Salvatore, known as Ted, was born to the couple. Their daughter Sarina followed in 1938. Son Thomas, Jr. was born in 1943.
Both of Tom Sr.’s sons worked in the store from an early age. In 1973 Tom sold the business to his sons. From the once small produce store, Ted and Tom expanded the business in 1975 to include groceries, meat, bakery and dairy. A few years later they expanded again to include a deli and liquor department.
Like their father before them, Ted and Tom instilled a love of the business in their children. In order to make room for all of the children in the business, Tom searched for a location to open another store.
The location that Tom chose was on the southwest corner of Capitol Drive and Brookfield Road in Brookfield. That site was developed into a multi-use shopping center known as Sendik’s Towne Centre where Sendik’s Fine Foods serves as the anchor tenant.
The advent of the new store marked another change in ownership in the family business. On January 2, 2001, Tom sold his interest in the Silver Spring store to his brother Ted and Ted’s sons who own and operate the Whitefish Bay location to this day.
On May 3, 2001, Sendik’s Fine Foods in Brookfield opened its doors for business – 75 years after the first Sendik’s store was opened. Thomas Balistreri, Jr. and his wife, Kathy were instrumental in opening the new 54,000 square foot facility, which is owned and operated by their sons, Tom, III and Jim Balistreri and daughters, Lori Barczak and Angela Wheeler.
On May 4, 2002, a day after the new Sendik’s store celebrated its first anniversary, Thomas Balistreri, Sr. passed away at the age of 92. In the wake of his passing, he has left a tremendous legacy for his family.
The Balistreri family believes that the key to their success is their personal commitment to consistently provide the finest products and the best service at a value price to their customers. To this day the Sendik’s stores serve as landmarks to a generation of immigrants who understood hard work and quality merchandise. They had earned a reputation in southeastern Wisconsin as the place to go for quality – a legacy Tom’s family hopes will continue in the Balistreri name and tradition for many generations to come.
Where Did the Name "Sendik’s" Come From?
When talking about our family business, the question most frequently raised is: “Where did the name ‘Sendik’s’ come from?” It’s an old story, one I’ve heard my parents and grandparents tell many times over the years, and it goes like this: My great-grandfather, Salvatore Balistreri, left St. Elia, Sicily and settled in Milwaukee. When he arrived he needed to set up his household, so he went out to purchase a stove. Being an immigrant, he spoke in very broken English. When he found the stove he wanted, he told the salesman to “send it.” It sounded like he said “Sendik,” which the salesman took for my great-grandfather’s name. When the salesman came to deliver the stove, he inquired of some ladies outside of my great-grandfather’s home as to where he could find Mr. “Sendik.” The ladies laughed and directed the man to my great-grandfather, because they knew he was expecting a stove. What started out as a misunderstanding that produced a good laugh has turned into the name that embodies our family legacy and stands for quality.Lori Balistreri Barczak
Joe, Ignatius, Frank, Salvatore, Tony and Tom Balistreri.