Professional singer and restaurateur Tony Spavone has a soft spot in his heart for veterans, children, senior citizens and -- well, just about anybody in need.
At Tony Spavone's Ristorante, 266 W. Lake St., Bloomingdale, children and patients from Hines VA Hospital are treated to Christmas parties, fundraisers are held for charitable causes, customers are serenaded with song and many get up to join a giant conga line.
That's not to mention the events the Italian-born and trained singer performs at around the country.
"I love to give back," Spavone said. "Children, seniors, veterans. Anytime they approach me for anything like that, I'm there."
Spavone's gift of song and generosity recently were recognized when he went to New York City to receive the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in the categories of humanitarian and performing arts. Given to about 100 individuals each year by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the award celebrates America's diversity and honors those who dedicate themselves to serving others while preserving their heritage, promoting tolerance and acceptance, and using their personal and/or professional gifts to benefit humanity.
Spavone's fellow recipients at the May 11 ceremony included actress Mia Farrow, singer Dionne Warwick, generals and doctors. Past recipients have included several U.S. presidents.
"It was an experience of a lifetime," Spavone said. "I was standing there with all these people. Am I really here?"
George Randazzo, founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame who nominated Spavone, said the Bloomingdale restaurant owner is well-deserving. A past award recipient himself, Randazzo recalled a time 10 or 12 years ago when the Hall of Fame wanted to help a young gymnast in Bensenville who had become a paraplegic after she broke her neck. The girl's father was dying of cancer and the family was about to lose its home.
"One of the first guys I went to to raise money was Tony Spavone," Randazzo said. "That's one of many things he's done."
Spavone, who has been honored by a number of organizations over the years, said the Medal of Honor was his biggest award, and an especially emotional one for him. He received it three years after his father, Joe Spavone, died at age 90.
A chef on a cruise line who jumped ship to immigrate to America, the senior Spavone came with only the clothes on his back. He worked hard, became a citizen and brought his family to the United States 12 years later when his son was 13.
Eventually settling in Chicago, where he opened the Seven Hills Restaurant in the Lincolnshire neighborhood, Joe Spavone taught his son the restaurant business and shared his love of song as an amateur singer.
"I just hope my father was looking down. If it wasn't for my dad, I never would have got that (award)," Spavone said.
In New York, Spavone stayed in a hotel room that looked out on the Statue of Liberty and walked among statues of immigrants.
"You don't realize what people went through to come to this great country," he said. "It brought me to tears.
"When I came from Italy, I worked in the kitchen," he said. "I've had a great, great, great life."
The photos lining the walls of Spavone's restaurant testify to what an eventful life he has had. He's performed with the likes of Frankie Valli, Frank Avalon and the Jersey Boys; sung at the 2000 Republican National Convention and for governors in Springfield; and hobnobbed with folks like Joe DiMaggio, Bob Hope and Harry Caray. Celebrities drop in and often pick up the microphone at his restaurant when they're in town.
Spavone refers to Secretary of State Jesse White as his fishing partner, and has held fundraisers for the Jesse White Tumblers. When former Sun-Times columnist Irv Kupcinet sponsored the Purple Heart Cruises for veterans, Spavone was there to entertain.
"God gave me such a great gift with my voice. I've done very well with it," he said.
Sharing his gifts
It was while he was working at his father's restaurant that Spavone realized his voice was a gift and went to Italy to train.
He worked full-time as a performer from the time he was in his 20s until he was 33, when he tired of traveling. Offered a chance to go back into the restaurant business, he worked with a couple other people before opening Tony Spavone's Ristorante nearly 30 years ago.
Over the years, he's watched babies in highchairs come back to the restaurant for homecomings, rehearsal dinners and showers.
"I saw so many children growing up," he said.
During that time, Spavone and his wife, Lynette, have raised their own daughters, Colette, 23, and Janette, 19. The family has always needed to share him with others, Lynette said.
"The heart my husband has is bigger than his head," she said with a smile. "I've never heard him say 'no' to any charitable cause or to help someone."
Spavone has gone out of his way to give support to young people who are interested in music, Randazzo said. Spavone's musical gifts were the second reason he nominated him for the Medal of Honor after Spavone's charitable work, he said.
"I think he's a really good entertainer. I think he helps people feel good," Randazzo said.
Spavone, who has five CDs, entertains at Italian festivals around the country. A native of Naples, he is partial to Neapolitan crooning, but he sings popular American and Spanish songs as well.
"I'm pretty versatile," he said. "I read my audience. I sing what I feel in the room."
So whether it's Frank Sinatra or Andrea Bocelli the audience wants, Spavone is ready.
"To put a smile on someone's face, that's my reward," he said.
For more information on Tony Spavone and his music, see www.tonyspavone.com.