A local restaurateur feeds thousands at a special holiday meal
By Linda Girardi
The staff at Mesón Sabika is gearing up to greet guests for its annual Thanksgiving Day feast, but the evening dinner service will not be business as usual.
The Naperville restaurant is closed on major holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s, but owner Hossein Jamali makes an exception on Thanksgiving Day by opening his restaurant for families and individuals who otherwise would not experience dining out in beautiful surroundings.
“It’s pretty much one of my happiest days of the year,” Jamali says of the annual day of thanks.
The restaurant, located in the grandness of an 1847 mansion surrounded by gardens, has reservations for an estimated 2,000 guests, many of whom are homeless, experiencing challenging difficulties in their lives, or have no family to be with.
Jamali says the list of 60 volunteers interested in helping out that day reaches capacity two months in advance, but this year someone who was a big part of the celebration will be absent, he says. Jamali was a friend of the late mayor George Pradel, who came to volunteer as a greeter every year. Pradel, who retired as mayor in 2015, died September 4 at age 80.
“Mayor Pradel greeted every table personally, and the kids loved him. He was always a big part of it,” Jamali says. “His friendliness radiated at every table.”
Jamali is accustomed to participating in fundraisers, whether on a global or national level, “to help make the lives of others better.” He decided to do something locally with Mesón Sabika as the venue when he became the sole owner of restaurant in 2001.
Guests receive the traditional warm welcome at the mansion’s front door. Once seated, they are served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner of freshly roasted turkey with all of the trimmings.
“Guests arrive just as they do on any other day,” he says.
Jamali reaches out to shelters, churches, nursing homes, and social service agencies to fill his guest list. All eight dining rooms of the mansion and the pavilion are filled at different times during the three-hour event. Reservations start months in advance.
“Their need can be financial, emotional, or physical. We do not ask questions,” the restaurateur says. Jamali insists there be no mention of a free dinner, especially around families with kids. “We want children to feel their parents brought them out to a nice dinner for Thanksgiving. The only difference is there is no check at the end.”
Jamali is inspired by his own childhood growing in Tehran, where his parents experienced hardships. “When we came to the United States, my family was borderline poverty. Being a kid, I remember the terrible feeling when others know your parents cannot afford something,” he says.
Ryan Dowd, the executive director of Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora that is the second largest in the state, says the Mesón Sabika annual Thanksgiving Day dinner is something that rarely comes along for people struggling with poverty and homelessness.
“It can be undignified to be the perpetual recipient of charity,” he says. “When we make people in need of assistance feel that sense of charity, we can do some rather significant damage to them,” he adds. “Hossein’s point of making people feel that it is not a free meal, but a dinner out with the family, is probably more important than the food itself,” Dowd says.
Jamali said he’s always admired Dowd’s approach to his work in serving people who are homeless: “Ryan believes that everyone deserves to live a life with dignity.”
Jamali says he, too, believes in that philosophy, in both his personal and professional life. “I am not able to change the world. I wish that I could,” he says. “But if I can make the effort to express kindness, maybe others will do the same and it will multiply.”