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Making a difference in Melrose Park

Mayor Ronald Serpico       

Ron Serpico’s roots run deep into the soil of Melrose Park. His paternal grandparents moved to the near western suburb from Italy more than a century ago, his dad was born there, and his mom moved there with her family when she was an infant. Ralph “Babe” Serpico and Josephine Luzzi were married at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and raised four boys in the community. Ron and his wife, Donna, followed suit, raising three kids of their own. By the ’80s, Ron was surrounded by nearly four dozen extended family members.

“It was great growing up around so many aunts, uncles and cousins,” Ron recalls. “With the way the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel brought us together, the entire village was like one big family.”

Melrose Park was overwhelmingly Italian American when Ron was young, and he has fond memories of Neapolitan boarders sitting outside his grandmother’s home in their sweaters and ties, of bocce games played for glasses of homemade wine in her backyard, and of enormous parties at his dad’s house the Saturday of feast week.

“My mom used to walk with the Branda candle house in the procession for as long as I could remember,” he explains. “Since becoming mayor, I’ve walked with the Branda family in the morning and at the front of the procession in the afternoon, to honor my family and my position.”

Ron attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grade School, Proviso East High School and Illinois State University before pursuing a law degree at DePaul University and going into practice back home. His undergraduate career in Normal, Illinois, was the only significant time he spent living outside the village limits. His dad was a longtime Democratic committeeman, and it was only a matter of time before Ron followed in his footsteps.

“My dad was a natural politician, and I would go everywhere with him,” he explains. “It was time for a change, and I had the youth and the energy and the love of Melrose Park, so I started knocking on doors, and the next thing you know I was mayor!”

That was back in 1997, and Ron immediately set to work making his vision for Melrose Park a reality. In the process, he helped usher his beloved village into the 21st century.

Village Hall is now surrounded by the Guy C. Guerine Senior Center, Peter J. Urso Public Works Building, Ralph “Babe” Serpico Athletic Field and Sam Cerniglia Memorial Park thanks to Ron’s initiative. He spearheaded the creation of a railroad overpass at 25th Avenue and rallied seven suburbs to execute an award-winning overhaul of the area water system. In 2020, he privatized the village’s ambulance service, assuring that each ambulance arrives on the scene with a paramedic.

“I think I’m most proud of that improvement, because it saves lives,” Ron says.

His dedication to the welfare of his constituents led him to create the Melrose Park Sports and Family Benefit Fund in 1997. Since then, the fund has donated more than $2 million to local youth and senior causes.

“As a mayor, nothing feels better than doing something that improves the lives of your residents,” Ron explains.

On the economic development front, Ron has overseen the transformation of hundreds of acres of abandoned industrial land, cleared the way for a cutting-edge renovation of the Al Piemonte Ford dealership, sparked the revival of the once-moribund Melrose Crossing shopping center, and brought major retailers like Costco, Menard’s and Tony’s Finer Foods to the village.

“With an older suburb like Melrose Park, you either evolve or die,” Ron notes. “I’m proud of the growth and change we’ve brought to the village.”

His multifront efforts paid off when Governor Pat Quinn presented Melrose Park with his Hometown Award in 2013 and Chicago magazine named the village the best area for first-time home buyers in 2019.

Over the decades, the Melrose Park family has grown to include a vibrant Mexican-American population. Ron has welcomed them with open arms, offering them jobs with the village and creating a Center for Integration and Development that teaches English as a second language to adults, operates a computer lab, provides legal aid and offers small-business assistance.

“I look at our Mexican-American residents, and I see the Italian-American community when my grandparents were just starting out,” Ron observes. “They’re hard-working, family-oriented and Catholic; they’ve braved discrimination and prejudice to make a better life for their kids; they’re doing jobs that no one else wants to do; and their kids and grandkids are going to college and joining the American mainstream.

“I’m proud of my Italian heritage, but I’m just as proud to be the mayor of my whole community. I want to celebrate all our victories and make Melrose Park a better place for us all to live.”

— Paul Basile

 

Village Clerk Mary Ann Paolantonio

Everybody knows what mayors do, but what about village clerks? According to Mary Ann Paolantonio, a bit of everything. “We wear a lot of hats,” she says of the post she’s held since 2001, adding with a laugh, “Basically, we do all the jobs that no one else does.”

Among them are record keeper, freedom of information officer and chief local election official. She’s also more than happy to answer any questions that come her way. “I’ll be at the bank and someone will come up to me and say that they need a tree trimmed or a sidewalk fixed, and I’ll let them know who to talk to.”

Mary Ann is proud that Melrose Park employees are required to live in the village. “It gives us a real sense of investment in the community that we serve,” she says. “And it gives our residents great access because we shop at the same grocery stores and take our clothes to the same cleaners.”

Mary Ann’s paternal grandparents came to Melrose Park from Potenza, Basilicata, in 1915, and her mother, Carmella, and she were both born in the village. Her father, Silvio, grew up in Shelter Island, New York. He and Carmella met during family visits in the summer, became pen pals and eventually fell in love. “Like a true Melrose Park gal, she had her way, and my dad moved here to get married in 1950,” Mary Ann says.

Her maternal grandmother began the family tradition of carrying a candle house in the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel procession in 1921, and Mary Ann is honored to walk in her nonna’s footsteps as the annual act of devotion approaches its 100th anniversary. “No matter where you go, when you say you’re from Melrose Park, people always mention the feast,” she points out with pride.

Mary Ann graduated from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Grammar School, Mother Guerin High School, Triton College and DePaul University. She began working for the village in 1997, and her involvement with the Missionaries Sisters of St. Charles predates that by several years. A member of their Provincial Guild since 1993, she is a past president and longtime chair of the Dinner Dance and St. Joseph Table committees.

“Sister Michael was my kindergarten teacher, and she always wanted me to join the guild,” she explains. “You can’t say no to the sisters! They’re just so wonderful, you can’t help but admire them.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Police Director Sam Pitassi

When Sam Pitassi was attending Proviso East High School in Maywood, it was a place of racial unrest and discord. The situation got so bad at one point school administrators asked police officers from Melrose Park and other western suburbs to patrol the halls.

“I admired their commitment and resolve in keeping us safe,” Sam recalls. “Plus, my uncle and godfather (Nick Perrino) was a police officer in Chicago in the 1960s. He inspired me to pursue law enforcement as a career.”

The son of Peter and Christine (nee Millonzi) Pitassi, Sam moved to Melrose Park with his family from the Grand Avenue Italian enclave in Chicago when he was 4. After high school, he earned an associate’s degree in police science at Triton College in 1972 and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Lewis University in 1974. He joined the Melrose Park Police Department that same year; married Rosa Ruotolo, a native of Naples, Italy, in 1985; and steadily rose through the ranks until he was appointed chief in 2007. That position was upgraded to director in 2016.

Having worked the beat himself, Sam finds it easy to relate to the younger officers under his command. “When they’re working on holidays and dealing with changing shifts in a job that tends to keep them away from their families, I’ve been there,” he says. “I enjoy being able to provide guidance to fellow officers.”

That compassion earned him a letter of commendation from Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a national organization that strengthens ties between employers and the military personnel who work for them. He also earned a special mayoral commendation in 2001 and the Man of the Year Award from the Flowers of Italy Club in 2008.

As much as law enforcement has evolved in the 40 years since he entered the force, it remains rooted in the same principles, according to Sam. “Everything has changed when it comes to the economy, salary and pensions,” he explains. “One thing that will always be the same is our mission to keep the public safe.”

Sam is proud of the fact that his son has joined the force, and he’s equally proud to be able to protect the community he grew up in.

“I spent my whole life in Melrose Park, and I plan on spending the rest of my life here, too,” he says. “As long as I’m in this position, I’m going to work to make sure that this is the most professional department it can be.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Fire Chief Rick Beltrame

Growing up in Melrose Park, Rick Beltrame didn’t have to look very far to know which direction in life to head. Both his father and brother were police officers for the village, and he knew he wanted to serve and protect in one capacity or another.

The son of Richard and Jackie Beltrame, he attended Stevenson Grade School, Holy Cross High School and Western Illinois University, where he earned a bachelor of science in social justice. Except for his four years in college, he’s lived his entire life in Melrose Park, marrying Maria Gurrieri in 1997. The couple has one daughter.

After graduating, he took both the police and fire tests, and when the call came from the Melrose Park Fire Department, he answered and never looked back. On June 1, 1981, he became a firefighter. Fewer than 25 years later, on May 1, 2005, he rose to the rank of chief, which he looks back upon as the high point in his career.

“It was a dream come true for me, especially with my dad serving on the police force,” he says. “I never thought I would be in this position, and now I’m able to make decisions every day that help the community.”

Rick recalls his years as a fireman fondly. “You work 24 straight hours. You live with a group of men — holidays, Sundays — it doesn’t matter the day. And they become your family for that one day,” he explains. “It isn’t your typical 9-to-5 job. And it takes a while to get used to.”

The key to being a good fire chief is managing each firefighter differently, according to Rick. “You have to deal with those personalities to get the best work out of them: not the most, but the best,” he explains. “You have to be able to get respect from your men so they will work for you and do their job.”

Given Rick’s deep roots in the community, it was only a matter of time before the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Feast Committee and Flowers of Italy honored him as Man of the Year, which they did in 2006 and 2007, respectively.

As for his own career path, Rick wouldn’t change it for anything. “It’s a fulfilling job where you help people who need help,” he says. “I feel lucky and blessed to be able to reach the position of fire chief in the village I’ve lived in my whole life.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Public Works Director Gary Marine

There is an electric charge that runs through Gary Marine every time he steps into the office. He has a hard time controlling his enthusiasm for his job and his love for his town and family. That electricity radiates from him as he goes out to the Public Works garage to check on a utility truck he’s bringing back to life.

Melrose Park’s Director of Public Works was raised along with five brothers on Chicago’s West Side. He has lived in Melrose Park for 48 years and has spent 47 of those years married to the former Pamela Zito. He has two children and two grandchildren.

His parents, Charles and Mary (Favee) Marine, met before World War II on a baseball field through friends. Mary played in the women’s professional baseball league that sprang up during World War II, and Charles played ball, too.

“It’s funny how my wife and I met,” Gary says. “I worked for a contractor, and during the winter months, my boss rented space at 31st and Lake where we would service the backhoes and end loaders. My future wife worked next door, and every day she would come in and get a bottle of pop out of the machine and play with his two German shepherds.”

He finally got up the courage to ask the owner of the shop to introduce him to Pamela. They chatted every day but never dated. “A year later, she pulled next to me in a car on Lake Street and 19th Avenue. I yelled over to her, ‘Hey, I’ll call you tonight,’ and we’ve been together ever since,” Gary says.

Mayor Ronald Serpico, who is a longtime friend of Pamela’s family, began to hear good things about her husband. “The mayor was aware of my background in construction,” Gary says. “One day he asked me if I would be interested in working for the village, and I’ve been here ever since. I was hired first as lead building inspector in 2002 and then appointed Director of Public Works in 2007.”

In his current position, he oversees the day-to-day operations of the Street, Landscape, Electric, Water and Sewer departments, and is involved in the everyday maintenance of the village fleet. “I love my job,” Gary enthuses. “I really enjoy dealing with the public, and I enjoy operating the equipment on special projects. I’m a blue-collar, hands-on guy.

“I’m proud to work for Mayor Serpico and serve my community. I will never leave Melrose Park. I’m a lifer.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Special Events Director Peggy DiFazio

Peggy DiFazio is the driving force behind one of the premier events in the near western suburbs: the Taste of Melrose Park. In operation since 1881, the event took wing when Peggy was put in charge in 1997, after the election of Mayor Ron Serpico.

She helms the Taste as the village’s Director of Special Events, getting the ball rolling in early February when she contacts vendors and reaches out to sponsors. “It takes about eight months to bring it all together,” she explains.

When the Taste began, it featured 40 food vendors. Now it boasts 66, with crafters and businesses also part of the mix. “We will have more than 200 tents, including stages, dressing rooms and homeland security,” she notes. “It grows every year, and we always strive to provide the best entertainment.”

The event runs from Friday to Sunday over the Labor Day Weekend; this year’s event is slated for Sept. 4-6. Four stages will showcase free entertainment, with the Rat Pack and the Jersey Girls performing on the main stage on Sept. 5 and Classic Rock Experience, a high-energy dance band with pyrotechnics and laser lights, capping the festivities on Sept. 6. A carnival for children 10 years and younger runs throughout the weekend.

“There is no other festival like ours,” Peggy attests. “It shows the village as a diverse, family friendly community.” She laughs when she thinks about her long tenure with the event. “I could do it in my sleep. People ask where a specific tent is, and I can tell them without looking. It’s embedded in my brain.”

But that’s just the start of Peggy’s involvement with the village. She also serves as Director of Senior Affairs. A lifelong resident whose ties to the village span six generations, she sees herself as part of a much larger extended family.

“We have a lot of seniors whose children no longer live in Melrose Park,” says Peggy, whose maiden name is Larry. “They have no one to turn to, so we help them with Social Security, circuit breakers, their income tax returns, and power of attorney for medical and financial matters.”

Her department recently introduced a new initiative aimed at veterans, who must navigate a challenging paper trail on the way to receiving the benefits they’ve earned. “They fought for our country and should be getting something back,” Peggy asserts. “My husband is a Vietnam vet, and I learned how to handle his paperwork, and now I’m helping others do the same.”

— Terry Quilico

 

City Counsel Michael Del Galdo

Michael Del Galdo first met Ron Serpico while working on Ron’s campaign for mayor in 1997. It’s clear Serpico saw something special in his young volunteer.

“I was in law school at the time, and when he took office, he hired me as the law clerk for the village. I’ve been the law clerk and then attorney for Melrose Park since June of that year,” Mike recalls. “That was my first position after graduating from the DePaul College of Law. Not only that, the mayor drove me to get sworn in, and he organized my graduation party!”

Mike traces his family roots to Naples, Salerno, Abruzzo and Germany. He was born in New York and lived in New Jersey before moving with his family to Illinois. He attended high school in Wheaton and earned his undergraduate degree in political science from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Before he became an attorney, he interned for a congressman in Washington, D.C. “I’ve always been interested in politics and government,” he explains.

Mike’s career has taken off since then. As the founder and principal of the Del Galdo Law Group, he sits at the head of the third largest municipal law firm in the state, with 27 attorneys and a staff of 43. “We have 100-plus government clients, and I am proud that it all started in Melrose Park,” Mike says.

At the time of the 1997 election, industry was flagging in the village, and major corporations were moving out of state. “Mr. Serpico changed the face of the village by convincing companies like Target and a Fortune 500 developer to invest and build in the community,” Mike explains.

He toiled with the mayor for 10 years to pave the way for Costco to take over the property once occupied by the iconic Kiddieland Amusement Park. “The mayor has done a great job of staying ahead of the real estate market and convincing business to come to or stay in Melrose Park,” Mike says. “It has eased the tax burden on the individual residents.”

Mike takes pride in doing legal work that improves the lives of his fellow Melrose Parkers. “It’s great to have a lasting impact on the community, to be able to drive by something and tell your kids you had something to do with it,” he says.

“The decisions the mayor makes, that I’m charged with turning into policy or law, help shape our future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Flowers of Italy dynamo Sandy Ciancio

Sandy Ciancio has been involved with the Flowers of Italy Club in Melrose Park since she was a child. Her father, Frank, was one of the original members, serving as president from 1989-90. He arrived in Melrose Park from Cosenza in 1966, and his future wife, Rose Mastronuzzi, has lived there since 1959.

Sandy works as director of an occupational health clinic and spends much of her free time at the club, where she serves as vice president of the Ladies Auxiliary. Her many responsibilities include organizing parties, excursions, and the annual Carnivale and dinner dance.

Once open only to men of Calabrian descent, the club now welcomes all who have Italian ancestry and gears its activities to families and friends. Their facility on Lake Street has a full kitchen, a meeting/dining area, and an outdoor patio and bocce court.

Sandy is particularly proud of the scholarships the club bestows, as well as the grants, called Mission Awards, it gives to families in need. “We extend these not just to members of the club but to the community at large,” she notes. She is currently working through the club with the mayor’s office and officials in Italy to forge a sister-city bond with Paola, Cosenza, Calabria.

For her, the club is a “place where we can foster our culture and language for future generations, keeping the traditions and paesans together.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Sacred Heart School Principal Barbara Ciconte

At a time when so many Catholic schools and churches are consolidating or closing, the Sacred Heart School in Melrose Park is thriving.

At the heart of this educational rinascimento is Barbara Ciconte. A graduate of the school, she served as a teacher there for 14 years and as the principal for another 14. “My family connection with the school and parish goes all the way back to my grandparents,” she says. “My whole family has been educated here.”

Her inspiration was a former pastor, Fr. Cosmo Militello. “He was the one who encouraged me to go back to school to get my master’s in administration at Dominican University. He always told me, ‘Whenever you go to meet someone to get help for the school, always say it is for the kids because how can you turn that down?’”

When she became principal, the enrollment was down to 121 students. Under her watch, it has risen to 170. “Our greatest challenge is financial, always trying to find out what we can get to help those who are in need, those who are struggling,” she shares. “We’re always looking to enhance our programs without raising tuition.”

For Barbara, the biggest reward is “seeing the kids with that ‘ah ha!’ moment, when you know they get it. It’s also great when they want to come back and help. It shows that we have done something well.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Scalabrinian Sister Marissonia Daltoe

The Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo have played a pivotal role in shaping Melrose Park for more than a century. Better known as the Scalabrinians, the religious order of priests and nuns built two parishes, a seminary, a provincial house and three convents in the village and neighboring Stone Park. Sr. Marissonia Daltoe has witnessed much of that history.

She taught at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School from 1968-71, making quite an impression on the future mayor’s brother Terry, who attended kindergarten under her tutelage.

She lived at the provincial house in Melrose Park from 1978-89 and returned from 1999-present, serving as provincial superior for much of that time. In that capacity, she oversaw the Scalabrini Sisters in North America, the Philippines, India and Indonesia. She also worked closely with the local community to stage the sisters’ popular St. Joseph Table.

Born in the Brazilian town of Encantado to immigrant parents from Piemonte and the Veneto regions of Italy, she has served immigrant communities in Mexico, Canada and California. She even spent 1989-95 in Italy as superior general of the order, but Melrose Park still feels like home to her.

“I was sent here because there was a need,” she says. “My family asks me if I want to return home (to Brazil), and I tell them, ‘If they send me, I will go, but my calling is here.’”

— Terry Quilico

 

Mt. Carmel Feast Procession Marshal Sebastian Lorenzo

There have been many milestones in the 127 years the parishioners of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel have celebrated their feast in honor of the Blessed Mother.

Families have walked in procession, carried candle houses and erected lawn shrines for generations, but one endurance record may be unmatched. “My great-great-grandfather started the procession marshals in 1925, and he was the grand marshal until 1971,” says Sebastian Lorenzo. “My grandfather held that position from 1971-97 until he passed, and I took over in 1997.”

Even more remarkably, all three have shared Sebastian’s first and last name. And so it has gone, from great-great-grandfather to great-great grandson for 95 years.

The semaphore system that was instituted in 1925 to stop and start the huge procession has given way to walkie-talkies, but the responsibility for keeping order remains the same. “It’s a sacred trust that every marshal takes very seriously,” Sebastian says.

Sebastian has broken with tradition in one regard. His father expected him to take over the family’s lumber and millwork business, but Sebastian pursued a career as a firefighter instead.

“At the time, my dad wasn’t too enthusiastic, but now he says it was a great move on my part,” Sebastian shares.

His schedule of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, has afforded him the opportunity to also run a sign company and work as a real estate investor and developer. But come feast week, his heart belongs to the Blessed Mother.

— Terry Quilico

 

Triton College Foundation President Tom Olson

Triton College looms large in Melrose Park. Established in 1964 in neighboring River Grove, it offers an array of affordable education opportunities, making it an ideal next step after high school for generations of village residents. Tom Olson took that step, and he has been involved in the venerable community college ever since.

His parents, Harold and Vivian (Pastore) Olson, moved to Melrose Park from Chicago in the mid-1950s, and Tom was born soon after. He attended Stevenson Elementary School and Proviso East High School before enrolling at Triton and graduating in 1977.

He went to work for the college in 1983, starting as a graphic designer and moving up the ranks to director of creative services and executive director of marketing before retiring in 2012.

That same year, he accepted the position of president of the Triton College Foundation, which raises funds for scholarships, college staff, equipment, and new programs and services, as

well as a host of other needs.

Tom deploys his creative skills on behalf of the community, designing ad books pro bono for the Flowers of Italy Club, Missionary Sisters of St. Charles and the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Feast. He also sits on the Veterans Park District board and supports several youth, civic and charitable organizations.

For Tom, it’s all about giving back. “I am very proud of my family, friends and coworkers, and I’m grateful for their kindness, dedication, support and generosity.”

— Terry Quilico

 

Neighbors magazine Publisher Tina Valentino

Tina Valentino wears many hats. She is the executive editor, contributor and publisher of Neighbors magazine, which she founded 18 years ago. Working hand-in-hand with account executive Dee Tintori, the dynamic duo puts out a publication read by 20,000 residents in 13 near western suburbs. Free copies are available at distribution points throughout the area.

Neighbors earned the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism despite bucking journalistic conventions and focusing mainly on good news. Local nonprofits and individuals who work at food pantries and with veterans are what make headlines in Tina’s world.

She is equally devoted to the cause for the canonization of Venerable Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, founder of the Sinsinawa Dominicans. She became familiar with Fr. Mazzuchelli while earning an English degree at Rosary College, which is run by the religious order.

“For 10 years, I have had the honor to work with the sisters on this cause,” Tina says. “Fr. Samuel left Italy and worked throughout Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin as a missionary, establishing churches and schools and spreading the faith throughout the region.”

Tina’s ties to her community and passion for her craft run deep. “My grandfather and my mother were born here, and my strongest bond is to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel,” she explains. “When you do what you love, when you feel you have a story to tell, a mission to accomplish, it really isn’t work.”

— Terry Quilico

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Fra Noi produces a magazine and website that serve the Chicago-area Italian-American community. Our magazine offers our readers a monthly feast of news and views, culture and entertainment that keeps our diverse and widely scattered readers in touch with each other and their heritage. Our website offers a dizzying array of information drawn from every corner of the local community.

3 comments

  1. Maria (D'Anza) Pindelski

    Really enjoyed the article on the wonderful people in Melrose Park, my hometown. They have worked so hard to make it a great town and place to live. I have fond memories of the past but the present and future are in good hands.

  2. Joesph A. Scudiero

    Our family was a staple to the community in many ways. We all could share our past with what traditions were provided by all in many capacities. Thank you for your service as we all were one in how we lived together.

  3. Excellent! Congrats to all on your accomplishments and helping to maintain the history and traditions of Melrose. It was a great place to grow up and call home.