It’s fitting to focus this month’s article on a personal friend of mine who truly needs no introduction in the city of Berwyn or the Chicagoland Italian-American community. My “someone you should know” is community leader and funeral director Joseph Russo, who is realizing a longtime dream of opening of his own funeral chapels.
I’ve personally known, trusted and admired Joey for more than 25 years, so I’ll start from the beginning. Throughout our high school years, we were the ultimate Italians (not your Jersey Shore wannabes). We were proud of our heritage and we had to profess it with every article of clothing we wore, showing off our green- white-and-red pride everywhere we went.
I was the Berwyn Boy and Joey was the Cicero Kid, and we both came from humble beginnings with roots in Rende, Calabria. Joey had a passion to be a part of anything, whether it was helping his mamma in the kitchen or in the garden. He was always willing to help his family and friends with any task at hand.
Joey’s father, Orlando, was my barber when I was a teen, and true to form with any old-school barber, it was his way or the highway. I remember being able to change his mind only once, and there was a price to be paid. I can recall wanting a ducktail haircut, which was the style in high school. After pleading with Mr. Russo for a half hour that I was the customer and I should be right, he agreed to give me ducktail. The only catch was that I had to leave out the back door and not tell anyone that I got my hair cut at Orlando’s. To my surprise, I soon found out my father, who never had a day of tonsorial training in his life, knew how to wield a pair of scissors, because as soon as he saw my new ducktail, it was clipped off before I could say, “Quack! Quack!”
Immediately out of high school, Joey began his career as a funeral director. As neighborhood kids, we couldn’t understand WHY, but the kid was excited about school and was very passionate about this career path. It was at that time that Joey earned the nickname of “Joe Mort” from all the guys.
Before our very eyes, “Mort” became an articulate speaker with a true passion for funeral directing and a genuine goodness and personal touch that was perfect for people during their time of sorrow and need. Joey’s God-given talents are second to none. On more than one occasion, my family used Joey’s services, and we always felt a burden lifted from our shoulders in knowing Joey was taking care of everything while making all the right decisions on our behalf.
Mort was one of the guys who encouraged me to become involved in the Italian American Civic Organization of Berwyn. Joey started off as a member of the board of directors and held positions as the corresponding secretary, first and second vice president, and ultimately president, becoming one of only two guys in the history of the IACOB to serve two consecutive terms as president.
Throughout Joey’s tenure at the IACOB, he maintained the organization’s stature in the community by making sure it was involved in every event sponsored in the city while enhancing our identity in the Italian-American community at large.
Joey brought the St. Joseph Table back to the IACOB, and it has raised more than $25,000 for various charities in the last 15 years. This year’s St. Joseph Table will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Monday, March 19, at the clubhouse (6710 W. 16th St.), with all donations going to the Spina Bifida Association. Joey also launched our annual blood drives and brought Italian language classes for children and adults to the clubhouse, and he was one of the driving forces behind the remodeling of the clubhouse.
As Joey’s impact on Berwyn grew, his circle of Italian pride expanded beyond the borders of the city. In 1996, Joey became a board member of the Calabresi in America Organization at Casa Italia in Stone Park. Within 10 years, he was the president of CIAO while simultaneously serving his second presidency at the IACOB. Talk about a tough schedule! During this time, Joey was working as an associate funeral director with the Salerno Funeral Chapels.
Through CIAO, Joey became involved with the San Francesco di Paola Society, which honors the patron saint of Calabria. Joe currently holds positions as first vice president of the society and secretary of Casa Italia, where he has served as a board member since 2006.
Joey’s career and volunteer paths are intertwined, and people have rewarded Joey’s passion for both by trusting him to assist them and their families with their funeral planning. Throughout the 20 years that Joey has been a funeral director, he has built a reputation for his compassion and skills. Many people realized that he has a natural talent for the business, and have long urged him to open his own chapel.
Behind every good man is a good woman, and in Joey’s case, he has two of the best. His wife of 13 years, Josephine, and his beautiful daughter, Giuliana Bella, both fully support his career and give him the strength to move forward and have a vision and a belief in his ability to succeed.
Joey’s vision was to build a funeral home of his own that would stun the general public with Greco-Roman and Gothic style architecture that echoes the decor of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. After a five-year campaign, Joey’s vision is finally a reality with a modern 19,000-square-foot building that offers privacy, independence and individuality to each and every family Joey serves.
The spacious rooms accommodate 100 to 200 guests, and there is a private café for each room. Through Joey’s passion and love of the business, he has created a space that turns an overwhelming sense of loss into a celebration of life after death. Joey always sets the bar high for himself and is ready to achieve his personal goal with each and every client, regardless of their race, creed or financial status.
The sheer beauty and exuberance of the property has convinced more than one couple to stop in to book a room. Unfortunately for them, they thought it was a banquet hall and Joey had to turn them away because he was unable to accommodate their wedding receptions.
So come wish the Kid from Berwyn a hearty “Buona fortuna!” and take a tour of his fabulous new facility. The grand opening of Russo’s Hillside Chapels will be from 3 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday March 28. All are welcome to attend. The facility is located at 4500 Roosevelt Road in Hillside. For details, call 708-449-5300 or visit http://russohillsidechapels.com.