I never get tired of learning about the strange and wonderful pockets of Chicago history. I also don’t hate candy. So imagine my delight at watching a documentary that combines the two. Shelf Life comes from director Michael Lahey (Making Waves), whose grandfather just happens to be Elmo Lanzi, the founder (in 1920) of one-time Chicago candy staple Lanzi Candy, whose signature treat was something known as Lanzi’s Cashew Nut & Rice Crunch, an international hit made exclusively out of a small first-floor factory at 1135 W. Chicago Ave. (Lanzi actually owned the entire three-story building, where his family lived for generations.)
The film is about many things, including an attempt by a present-day entrepreneur to resurrect the Cashew Nut & Rice Crunch product with some recipe assistance from the Lanzi family (although the years-long process to nail the unique texture and consistency of the product was sometimes excruciating). The film also takes a fascinating dive into Chicago’s history as the candy capital of the world, built almost exclusively by immigrant families whose names served as the name of the company (Brach, Wrigley, Ferrara) and kept things going as family-owned businesses for decades (some still are).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Shelf Life is the story of how Elmo sold the company to a tobacco maker rather than give it to his oldest son (the filmmaker’s still-alive uncle), which would have been the tradition among Italian businessmen at the time. The move has been a source of mystery within the family ever since it occurred, and it seems key to understanding why the Cashew Crunch suddenly vanished from the market. The film actually spans quite a number of years as Lahey gathers stories from family members, follows the painstaking progress of the relaunch of the beloved product, and traces the demise of the city as a one-stop shop for candy lovers (elevated sugar prices being the key factor). The mystery keeps us engaged, but the entire film is expertly pieced together, telling a bittersweet story of an industry largely devoured by conglomerates, but with a few smaller boutique holdouts that keep things interesting.
The world premiere of Shelf Life happens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with screenings on Friday, July 12 at 3:45pm; Saturday, July 13 at 8pm; and Wednesday, July 17 at 7:45pm. Director Michael Lahey is scheduled to appear for audience discussions at all screenings. In addition, a sampling of Lanzi’s Cashew Nut & Rice Crunch will be in the venue’s Gallery/Café following all three screenings.
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