DeKALB – Rosa and Jim Balli remember cutting onions and tomatoes at ages 8 and 10, respectively, weaving in and out of the grown-ups waiting tables and tending bar at Rosita's Mexican Restaurant in DeKalb. Almost 40 years later, Eduardo's Mexican Restaurant, an offshoot of Rosita's, is closing its door.
So ends one chapter of the family business.
"All good things come to an end," Jim Balli, 54, said Friday sitting at an empty table in Eduardo's, before the dinner rush, which he called "overwhelming" since the siblings announced the DeKalb staple, 206 E. Lincoln Highway, would be closing Dec. 20. "But we still have the memories."
Rosa Balli, 58, and her brothers Jim and John Balli, 54, are the only three of their seven siblings left in the family business, started by their parents Luis and Beatriz Balli in 1972. Life in the service industry, on their feet all day, has taken its toll. Rosa is scheduled for significant back surgery in 2020 and Jim has to have knee surgery. They want to focus on their family – Jim and Rosa each have three children and live in DeKalb – and actually enjoy weekends and holidays for once, they said.
"We're too big, we can't pull capacity anymore," Rosa Balli said, citing economic challenges in the wake of Northern Illinois University's declining enrollment, which used to be a driver for busy nights.
It's been a whirlwind over the last week and a half, with old, new and longtime patrons coming to get their last taste of town-favorite treats, such as steak tapiquena, enchiladas, and more: all fan favorites Rosa said will be brought over to Rosita's, 642 E. Lincoln Highway, which will remain open.
Jim Balli begins to cry when asked how the community response feels and wipes his face with a bar towel. He's overwhelmed by the support, and from being on his feet all day making sure the line out the door is well taken care of for the last time.
"He's tired," Rosa said. "It's been packed since Friday at 12 p.m. Physically, it's tiring because we've been here every night. There's just a lot of emotions going on because it's been a part of our life."
The Balli family came from Donna, Texas, from migrant farming and hard work. It's that strong work ethic that brought them their success in business, Rosa said.
"They were always entrepreneurial," she said. "What they really had was the American Dream. So much of it is about work ethic."
From Texas, they moved to DeKalb, where they lived for a time in the basement of family friend Tony Fusaro. In return, Beatriz Balli regularly cooked homemade meals for the household. She and Luis decided to purchase an old pizza place at 1810 E. Lincoln Highway, which was originally meant to carry on the pizza practice as Rosita's.
Rosa said it failed miserably.
"We didn't know a damn thing about pizza," she said, looking at her brother and laughing. "Fusaro said to Dad, 'Your wife's been cooking us these delicious meals. Sell that.'"
Rosita's Mexican Restaurant opened in 1972 and quickly outgrew its home. After a decade, and a few downtown businesses that shuttered, the family purchased the building at the corner of East Lincoln Highway, formerly Honey Girl, a woman's department store.
Jim's been with the family business the longest.
"You just grew into it," Jim Balli said about taking over the family business. "Washing tables, cleaning dishes, and then you moved up to cooking as you got older. I actually worked at Lord Stanley's when it was Daddio's for about two years bartending, and that's the only time I wasn't working for the family. For Dad, it was really important for us all to stay together."
In the time since the siblings made the announcement, the outpouring of support reminds Jim and Rosa of the type of tight-knit family their parents worked to cultivate. They've had employees meet, fall in love and get married at Eduardo's (one wedding was officiated by their brother, John Balli).
Cindy Crawford herself has stopped by a time or two to visit her hometown and see her fellow DeKalb High School graduates.
"She would come in secretly," Jim said. "Everybody would be like 'Cindy Crawford, you know her?' and I'd be like 'I graduated with her, I had classes with her.'"
They said they'll miss the friends they've made over the years the most, but the long hours are something they'll gladly leave behind.
"It's just been a great journey," Rosa said. "It's been a great, loving response. That's how DeKalb is, though."