The 100 Most Powerful Chicagoans: Rich Melman
If any place breeds power, it’s Chicago. “Clout” and the city have gone together since the early 1900s, when our Irish Catholic forefathers clapped a stranglehold on the levers of authority that they have been loath to relinquish in modern times. Even in recent years, the general pecking order was clear: There was Richard M. Daley, then the rest. But last year the Man on Five vacated his throne, and Oprah threw us over for Tinseltown. Blago was busted, Rahm arrived, and Groupon, the web upstart that sounded like a fish special, became a multi-billion-dollar baby. Roiling the status quo, too, was a still-troubled economy that gaveth power and tooketh it away.
To be sure, some of the old guard still hold sway (Pritzkers, Crowns, Madigans). But the arrival of Rahm and departure of Oprah signal a seismic shift—one that begs a fresh examination of the city’s shot callers and game changers. So we tapped our extended network, quizzing everyone from under-the-radar players to leaders in dozens of industries, and determined the top 100 people who really make the city go.
Power often springs from wealth. But in Chicago, perhaps more than in most places, the rawest source of influence gushes from the fountainhead of political might. For much of our history, that meant a ward machine dominated by white Irish Catholic men. This power structure found its purest expression in the American Pharaoh himself: Da Mare, Richard J. Daley, the undisputed boss for 21 years. (His “idea of affirmative action was nine Irishmen and a Swede,” according to his press secretary, Frank Sullivan.)
The past, to some extent, has been prologue. Our list is dominated by white men, but it looks more diverse than it would have a decade or two ago. The arenas where power resides are shifting. As leaders in culture and food make bold influence grabs, we’ve reassessed what gives someone clout—it’s not necessarily wealth or position, but the power to influence; to electrify crowds; to inspire devotion. That’s why you’ll spy names on the list like Grant Achatz and Derrick Rose, Martha Lavey and Theo Epstein.
Our only requirement was that the listees’ primary residence be in the Chicago area and that they spend a significant amount of time here. That has led to quirks. For instance, the most powerful man in the world, President Obama, does not appear on the list (he tops our Chicago-on-the-Potomac roster of expats).
Some choices—and omissions—may be controversial. Good. Tell us who you think we snubbed, who we placed too high or too low, and who we ranked just right in the comments here. We want to know, really. Knowledge, after all, is you-know-what.
56. Richard Melman
OCCUPATION: Founder and chairman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises
Foodies love to cluck that the head of Chicago’s biggest restaurant group has lost his golden touch—or that he has passed the mantle to sons R.J. and Jerrod (see “Power Siblings”). Said foodies are usually eating at one of Melman’s 75 packed restaurants at the time.