Since he was in first grade, Mariani helped at his grandfather’s nursery — John Fiore & Sons in West :ake Forest, Ill. “The school bus stopped at the garden center, so I would get off the bus and work with my grandmother there.”
The Fiores, Mariani’s mother’s family, have been in the nursery business since the late 1800s. Mariani’s father, Vito Mariani Sr., worked there well before carving a niche in high-end residential landscape maintenance in 1958 and starting Mariani Landscape to care for homeowner properties and estates in the Lake Forest and Highland Park areas of Chicago. “The larger estates had full-time gardeners,” Mariani says. “My dad saw an opportunity to care for properties where the clients didn’t want to hire full-timers who lived and worked there every day.” This was, and continues to be, a business opportunity for immigrants into our community.
At the age of 17, when most kids were thinking about sock hops, proms and drive-in movies, Frank’s father died from leukemia at the age of 45, leaving him to provide for his mother and younger siblings (five brothers and one sister). “I was the oldest son — it was a matter of survival,” he says. He had to forget about high school and go to work in the family business.
“Situations like this can really shape and form your life,” Mariani continues, sharing that his father spent his last year of life, knowing he was terminally ill, teaching him about the business.
Though, like all Italian-American success stories, Mariani is a big fan of formal education, in his own experience, he had to “learn by the seat of my pants,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have to get up and go to work and have a can-do attitude — that’s the key to success.”
Family members — including grandparents, uncles and cousins who were also in the business — were supportive of Mariani’s venture to learn the business quickly. “They were the roots of the industry as I knew it,” he says. “They showed me that without a good work ethic, honesty and commitment to doing my best, I was just spinning my wheels.”
After 10 years of focusing on maintenance, Mariani added design/build to the company. There were many models of success in the area, which was well-populated with landscape firms. Mariani looked to them for guidance. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel — I looked at what they did well and emulated them,” he says.
As a child growing up in the Mariani household with mom, Joanna, and dad, Vito, Frank didn’t have a choice after church on Sunday — you worked in the garden before anything else, like it or not. “We had to work on the landscape equipment and cultivate the garden and weed every Sunday — it was torture. Then we’d have a nice Italian meal and, finally, it was time to go out and play.”
Mariani chuckles remembering this story: “Recently, we were out in the garden on Sunday and I started laughing to myself, and my wife asked me what was so funny.” I said, “If my dad could see that I was out here working in the garden on a Sunday and it was my decision to be out here, he’d turn over in his grave.”
Sal Barbatano, a highly respected bankruptcy attorney and a career Justinian Society of (Italian) Lawyers member, says of his cousin Frank: “Frank Mariani’s life and career exemplify the virtues of hard work, dedication and creativity characteristic of the Italian- American community. With Frank’s leadership and innspiration, Mariani Landscaping has become an internationally respected design and architecture firm which has received awards and recognition in the US and Europe. In his “spare time” Frank also became president of a national landscape architecture trade association, an active and successful real estate investor, and a director of several business enterprises, including the Lake Forest Bank & Trust Co. His achievements represent the finest aspirations of our community.”
Today, Mariani and his wife, Sherri, own a 10 acre estate in Lake Forest, Ill., highlighted by a 1929 Tudor-style house surrounded by an ornamental kitchen garden, an English perennial border, a prairie, an orchard, a woodland garden, an elegant allee of crabapples and a unique collection of native and exotic trees. Mariani’s home gardens also serve as laboratories where Mariani Landscape staff can experiment with designs and learn proper maintenance techniques.