After moving from Italy to Chicago in 1956, John Nitti started his own Italian grocery store, Nitti Foods, in 1957. For the next 30 years John successfully operated his store until he and his wife Janet moved to Italy for a year-and-a-half. While back in Italy, the entrepreneur in John could not be quieted and he quickly met contacts who helped him start a second venture, an importing business to bring the best of Italian goods to the United States. By 1992, John and Janet were back in Chicago selling products in a storefront and Isola Imports was born.
Importing Italian goods is not an easy task but John had a few natural advantages due to his connections in Italy, his knowledge of the language, and his familiarity with the business framework from operating his own store. When Isola Imports was just starting, English not being a prevalent language in Italy. This in conjunction with cultural differences made business deals much more difficult for many importers but John – a native Italian living in Chicago – was able to navigate the complexities from both sides of the ocean.
Eventually, it was time for John’s children to join Isola Imports. His youngest son, Jay, was the first to enter the company a few years after he finished college. With Jay in sales, the company began to expand and their first warehouse was purchased at Western and Ohio. A few months later, John’s daughter, Lisa, joined the business tackling sales and purchasing.
Isola Imports’ growth continued fueled by the unique products they brought to the United States from Italy. Due to their connections in Italy, Isola was often the first company to bring new products to the US market with other companies not catching on until much later. This helped Isola Imports create a strong, trusted brand with a loyal customer base. One of Isola’s most popular products, My Brother’s Olive Oil, is unique to the company because it is actually made from John Nitti’s brother’s olive grove. The olive grove was passed down from John’s grandfather to John and his brother. It is this type of product with a unique story to tell that truly makes Isola Imports stand out.
By 2003, Michael, John’s oldest son, had also joined the family business. Today, three out of five of the Nitti children work at Isola Imports. Michael joined the company with the task of branding and revamping the company’s website in order to continue the strong brand identity with consumers. The main goal with the updated branding was to create the ultimate Italian experience for consumers. Isola Imports wanted to be the hub where customers could get all their Italian products.
How is the branding of Isola Imports evolving today? What roles have the second generation taken on within the company? And what lies ahead for Isola Imports?
With the second generation now in leadership roles, the three Nitti siblings are finding out how to utilize each of their strengths to further grow the company. John and Janet are still available as a resource to provide support when needed. However, they believe it is important for them to let the second generation fly and see their own ideas through. John does not have any trouble phasing himself out of the business – mostly because his entrepreneurial spirit is still going strong as he remains involved in several other projects.
One key insight the Nitti family learned from being involved with organizations such as the Chicago Family Business Council is that creating definitive roles and job descriptions for everyone, including the family members, is key to smooth internal operations. Jay now oversees the entire sales team of Isola Imports, an expanded role from when he first joined the company. Lisa has taken on the role of finance, purchasing, and implementing food safety plans into Isola Imports, including completing the C-TPAT certification process (which expedites the importing process from Italy through U.S. customs). Michael has focused on the operations and the branding of Isola’s products, including overseeing the redesign of packaging and marketing to the consumer. Even though each sibling has their own role, just like any family business, they all wear different hats on any given day.
Today, Isola Imports sells more than 200 unique products in their 50,000 square foot facility. Working with 17 employees, Isola Imports has expanded their reach and accomplished many goals. They are the first to admit that they’re not the biggest Italian Importers on the block, but that fact does not intimidate them. Just this year, Isola’s products were featured in the Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease cookbook and Mariano’s is implementing an innovative stand in their markets which allows consumers to try Isola’s many different flavors of olive oil before purchasing. These touch points with consumers are helping Isola Imports thrive and remain on the shelves where they’ve been for 22 years.
In the future, Isola Imports will have to work hard to maintain strong relationships in Italy and continue to bring new and exciting products to the United States. The Nitti family has also found that it is very important to keep the proper balance of family and business. With such a large and tight-knit family, it can be challenging to keep the pressures of the business separate from the personal relationships. But they all know it is vital to do so in order to keep a successful company and a loving family. As a matter of fact, the entire family believes that Isola Imports will remain a family enterprise for decades to come. The third generation is still 12-years-old and younger, but there is already interest. Lisa and Michael’s sons frequently visit the office to help with orders and are interested in the business. The old saying that blood is thicker than water certainly holds true for the Nitti family. For them, it could also be said that blood is as thick as a really great olive oil!