Crediting the JCCIA with setting him on his life’s path, Ron Onesti is looking to return the favor as the organization’s incoming president.
At awards ceremonies, it’s not uncommon for recipients to well up as they recall those who helped them earn their place at the podium. Installations of officers tend to be more stoic affairs, but there Ron Onesti was, fighting back tears as he accepted the presidency of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans at a Jan. 24 meeting at Club Arcada in St. Charles.
“At that moment, it came full circle to me just how much the JCCIA has affected my life’s journey,” Onesti explains. “My love for my heritage, my involvement in the community, and many of my personal and professional choices have come from my years with the JCCIA.”
It all began when a young man looking to make an extra buck walked into the JCCIA office on Michigan Avenue in the early ’70s and encountered Marie Palello. The organization’s longtime executive secretary pointed Onesti in the direction of the city’s Office of Special Events, which was starting an Italian fest in the Far Northwest Side neighborhood where Onesti grew up.
Onesti spent 10 years as president of the Young Adults Division, hosting parties that attracted hundreds, launching the St. Joseph Table at Villa Scalabrini, writing a column for Fra Noi, inaugurating an awards ceremony for the Italo American National Union and serving as a marshal for the Columbus Day Parade.
“I met my wife while I was an escort at the Queen Contest, and we got married on a float during the parade,” Onesti says. “I remember meetings of the parent organization at the Como Inn with all the heavy hitters at the dais. It was so impressive.”
With those early experiences as a springboard, Onesti plunged into the fast-paced world of special events. He first lent a hand at Amerital UNICO’s lakefront Festa Italiana, and then created and produced Italian summer fests of his own on Oakley Avenue and Taylor Street as well as in Addison.
He formed Onesti Entertainment Corp. in 2005 with his brother Rich as second in command, eventually opening five venues across the Chicago area, including the Arcada Theatre, where the JCCIA election was held.
Over the decades, Onesti has donated untold hours, dollars, and resources to the JCCIA as well as other organizations and institutions in the community. His generosity and passion have been hailed by the Italian government, Ellis Island Honors Society and half a dozen other local organizations. He currently serves as president of the National Italian Sports Hall of Fame and as a board member at Casa Italia and the Italian American Veterans Museum. All of that has flowed from one place.
“The JCCIA took me down the road of Italian festivals, Italian food and Italian entertainment. I have my wife and my daughter, my close working relationship with my brother and all the other fruits of my professional labors because of the JCCIA,” Onesti reflects. “Now it’s time for me to give back in a big way.”
Big? Onesti’s plans for his two-year term are nothing short of monumental, with maximizing community involvement at the top of the list.
“The JCCIA is a congress of Italian-American organizations,” Onesti says. “My goal is to gather every local group under the JCCIA umbrella, and to sign up as many individuals and business members as we can.”
And the time to do that is now, he asserts. “The main takeaway from the current Columbus controversy is that there isn’t a button we can press to mobilize the community in a crisis to get 10,000 signatures, 5,000 letters, 2,000 marchers,” he notes. “We have the tool in place with the JCCIA, but we don’t have the mechanisms and we don’t have the numbers. There’s a lot to do and very little time to do it.”
Among his many other goals are:
- fostering greater communication within the Italian-American community;
- better informing non-Italian Americans of our community’s events;
- energizing and engaging younger generations of Italian Americans;
- promoting the teaching of the Italian language;
- dramatically expanding public expressions of pride during Italian Heritage Month and throughout the year;
- shoring up community assets like Casa Italia, Our Lady of Pompeii, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Fra Noi, the Italian American Veterans Museum and the area’s Little Italys;
- hammering out and executing an effective pro-Columbus strategy;
- bringing national and international resources to bear on local needs and issues;
- and taking full advantage of digital media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the organization’s website.
Onesti has already assembled a team of committee chairs who have begun the nuts-and-bolts work of turning goals into strategies and action plans.
“This is far from a one-man job,” Onesti points out. “If we want the community to be strong, it has to be involved and invigorated. We now have people leading the charge in key areas who have the skills and passion to make things happen, and everybody’s really excited.”
Onesti has been everywhere at once during a whirlwind first couple of months in office.
Internally, he has ordered an audit of organization finances, assembled a legal team, sought input from presidents of dozens of organizations and introduced a weekly video newsletter.
“For nonprofits to thrive, they have to be run like a business,” Onesti assures. “All your elements have to be strong — legal, financial, promotional — and you have to have strong communication, both internal and external.”
Externally, Onesti has reached out to elected officials and other key decision makers on the city, county, state and national levels in pursuit of a positive outcome for Columbus’ beleaguered statues, parade and day. He’s also working with leaders of other ethnic groups to identify ways to support each other’s agendas.
“My business is 150 percent relationship based,” he explains. “To create success, you have to create relationships, especially in times of adversity.”
When his two-year term comes to an end, what would he like his legacy to be?
“I hope to build a stronger sense of camaraderie among our member organizations,” he says, “to see them working together more.”
But that’s just a means to an end.
“We have all these things that are wavering right now: our holidays, our festivals, our assets,” he notes. “If we all put our shoulders into it and tap into the passion we all have, we can be on the road to making these things more secure. We can be on the road to being recognized and respected the way other ethnic groups are. That would be the greatest legacy of all.”
To find out more about the JCCIA’s new leaders and their plans of attack, visit franoi.com/community.
The above appears in the April 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.