Italian-American community leader Dominic DiFrisco passes away
June 7, 2019

Dominic DiFrisco (lower left) as he was typically seen—surrounded by smiling faces.

By Nathan Worcester

As mourners filtered into the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii on the morning of May 1, a familiar voice issued from the building’s speakers:

“And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain…”

Frank Sinatra’s legendary rendition of My Way was a fitting accompaniment for the funeral of Dominic DiFrisco—and not just because Mr. DiFrisco knew Ol’ Blue Eyes personally. Like the speaker in the song, Mr. DiFrisco, a leader in Italian-American Chicago, was an irreplaceable figure who lived a full life on his own terms. Through it all, he left an indelible mark on the public relations world, the local community, and the people he loved.

Born in the Bronx on Nov. 14, 1933, to Sicilian immigrants, Mr. DiFrisco first came to Chicago in 1962 as an employee of Alitalia Airlines. When Alitalia’s local branch shut down and he had the chance to transfer to New York City, he refused, citing his affection for Chicago. Though he could never shake his loyalty to the New York Yankees and Joe DiMaggio, Mr. DiFrisco’s abiding love for Chicago lasted him a lifetime. On April 28, he passed away due to complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Mr. DiFrisco led the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), where he was president emeritus, and co-founded the Old Neighborhood Italian American Club. He also served as color commentator for the Columbus Day Parade for 46 years. During the mid-1990s, he helped raise the money to save Our Lady of Pompeii church by having it proclaimed a shrine. As recently as 2018, Mr. DiFrisco led the successful effort to preserve the name of Balbo Drive, which honors Italian aviator Italo Balbo. Rather than renaming Balbo Drive after African-American journalist and civil rights leader Ida B. Wells, the City acquiesced to DiFrisco and the JCCIA by renaming the Congress Parkway after Wells instead.

The service’s opening tribute came from Richard Edelman, who spoke of Mr. DiFrisco’s outstanding service as an executive at the Edelman public relations firm.

“I will never forget his memorable wedding toast to my bride… in which he said, ‘You’re the Joe DiMaggio of wives,’” said Edelman, drawing laughter from the crowd. “The ultimate compliment!”

In his homily, the Rev. Richard N. Fragomeni, the shrine’s rector, spoke of a lunch he shared with Mr. DiFrisco in 2015, when Mr. DiFrisco told him an old Sicilian proverb passed on by his own father: “I am poorer for the lack of your requests.”

Mr. DiFrisco was “indeed made rich by all the demands and requests we made of him,” said Fr. Fragomeni.

Describing Mr. DiFrisco’s outreach to Holocaust survivors, the Jewish community, Native Americans, and others, Fr. Fragomeni emphasized that Mr. DiFrisco was “really Italian—with the best of what that means.”

“It is no surprise to me that we are celebrating his life today, May Day, an international workers’ day,” said Mr. DiFrisco’s grandson, Pasquale Dominic Gianni, in his eulogy. “He was always the champion of the little guy and was an advocate for equality and justice in all of its forms.”

“His ability to formulate words into magic was impeccable,” said Gianni. “He believed that Italians, so often depicted as low-brow and devious and uneducated, weren’t being given a fair shake.

“He loved Columbus Day more than any other because of what it represented: a celebration of his culture and a tribute to all of those who followed in Columbus’s bravery and footsteps, like his parents, by making a giant leap to an unknown world,” Gianni continued.

“He knew how to connect with people—and connect people—on a truly human level unlike anyone,” added Gianni.

Gianni also recounted how Mr. DiFrisco’s corner booth at Gene & Georgetti—“his office”—was “largely where it all took place” for more than five decades.

Gianni said his grandfather told him, “The wealth that I leave you will be in terms of reputation. In this way, he was the richest man I’ve ever known.”

After the service, some of the diverse attendees shared personal recollections of Mr. DiFrisco and reflected on his wider impact.

“We used to hang out at the Four Torches,” said jazz vocalist Bobbi Wilsyn, who paid tribute to Mr. DiFrisco during the service with an uplifting version of Goin’ Up Yonder. “He loved jazz. He loved all kinds of music, just like he loved all kinds of people, and that’s why he made such a widespread impression on everybody. There isn’t a community that he didn’t touch.”

“The service is an exclamation point on his life,” said David Coronna, a marketer with the public relations firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe, who worked with DiFrisco.

“Dominic was a great man who was always focused on others,” said Neil Parker, another former colleague from Burson.

“He was the unofficial mayor of Chicago,” said Andrea Hilts. “He knew everybody. He’s someone you’ll never forget.”

“He had a charisma that just drew you to him,” said Suzanne Valliere. “You just saw him and you thought, ‘I’ve got to talk to him.’ I think he was one of the only people that could, if he was in a room, and there was a celebrity, that he could call out to the celebrity, like ‘Hey kid, c’mere!’ and they do!”

“It’s been a big loss for the entire community,” said Italian vice consul Manuela Principe. “He was always welcoming us at Gene & Georgetti. He always helped us when we were in need.”