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Italian-American community leader Anthony J. Fornelli dead at 83

Italian-American community leader Anthony J. "Tony" Fornelli meeting with then-President Jimmy Carter. | Supplied photo

Anthony J. “Tony” Fornelli, who became one of the most prominent Italian-Americans in the Chicago area, drove a meat truck to put himself through law school.

He went on to be a civic leader and a partner in a chain of currency exchanges that grew to 50 locations in three states by the mid-1980s, said Paul Basile, editor of Fra Noi, a Chicago magazine covering the Italian-American community.

Mr. Fornelli died Wednesday at 83.

He organized Festa Italiana, a forerunner of Taste of Chicago that used to draw 100,000 to Navy Pier and Olive Park, with entertainers like Frankie Valli and Helen Reddy. It donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Villa Scalabrini in Northlake, established as an Italian-American home for the elderly.

He helped bankroll Fra Noi — Italian for “For Us” — when the magazine hit financial trouble.

Anthony Fornelli. | Fra Noi

He co-founded Casa Italia, a 17-acre cultural center in Stone Park, and started its Italian-American Veterans Museum.

He worked at City Hall in the corporation counsel’s office, helped chair the Chicago Plan Commission and served as a commissioner on Cook County’s Zoning Board of Appeals and as a special assistant Illinois attorney general. Under former Gov. Dan Walker, he was director of the state Department of Financial Institutions.

At his Chicago high school alma mater, St. Ignatius College Prep, he made donations in the high six-figures. Students benefited from his scholarships, and “he singlehandedly brought back football after a gap of 50 years,” said John Chandler, a vice president at the school. St. Ignatius named Fornelli Field after him.

Mr. Fornelli also chaired UNICO, the nation’s largest Italian-American service committee, and served as president of the Chicago area’s Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.

Tony Fornelli headed the Italian-American service organization UNICO. | Supplied photo

“There’s a generation that came up from the old Italian neighborhood, and they made something of themselves,” Basile said. “They tried to recreate that old neighborhood feel wherever they went, and that’s why he created Festa Italiana, that’s why he was involved in the creation of Casa Italia.”

Young Tony’s father was from Naples, and his mother was an Italian-American from Des Moines. He was born two days after aviator Italo Balbo — for whom Balbo Drive was later named — led a transoceanic fleet of planes from Italy to Chicago during the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair, according to Basile. “My father went down to see him,” Mr. Fornelli told Fra Noi. “The next day, my mother went into labor.”

For a while, “People always used to call him [Tony] Little Balbo,” said Dominic Candeloro, an Italian-American historian.

Tony Fornelli was a standout lineman at St. Ignatius College Prep. | Supplied photo

He grew up in Our Lady of Angels parish near Iowa and Avers. He was from a generation before the horrific 1958 fire at the church’s grade school that left 92 children and three nuns dead.

“He often talked about how the fire killed the Italian-American community in the neighborhood,” Candelor said.

A standout lineman on the football team at St. Ignatius, Mr. Fornelli went on to Loyola University — where he later helped create a professorship of Italian-American studies — and then to DePaul University for his law degree.

He became active with the 28th ward Democratic organization and later helped run Frank Annunzio’s successful 1972 congressional campaign, according to Basile. In 1995, he lost a bid to unseat Ald. Margaret Laurino in the 39th ward.

Mr. Fornelli worked with the Illinois Ethnic Coalition, friends said, because he understood the power of community-building.

“There’s a lot of Italian-Americans who are very proud of their history,” Basile said. “Tony had a bigger vision than that. He really looked at other ethnic groups. . . . He felt a kindredness with them.”

“He had a little more vision than most of the Italian-American leaders in terms of public relations, communicating with other ethnic groups,” Candeloro said.

“You have to reach out to other people and make their causes yours and vice versa,” Mr. Fornelli once told Fra Noi. “What binds us together is far greater than what separates us.”

Mr. Fornelli’s daughter Madelyn and Angela, his wife of 59 years, died before him. He is survived by his wife Guadalupe “Lupe” Cerrillo; daughters Jeanine Hammack, Toni Kilgallon, Angela Galioto and Marguerite Pettite; nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Visitation will be from 9 a.m. until a noon mass Wednesday at Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Rd.