After founder's passing, Italian sports museum faces uncertain future
A little more than three months after the passing of founder George Randazzo of Bloomingdale, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame will hold its annual awards gala in his honor Saturday night in Rosemont.
But the organization faces an uncertain future as volunteers try to fill the void left by Randazzo, the group's chief cheerleader and master networker who helped enshrine more than 270 athletes over the course of some four decades.
And after financial difficulties led to the closure last year of the museum's brick-and-mortar home on Taylor Street in Chicago's Little Italy, the organization's directors say they are committed to bringing the prized collectibles Randazzo amassed -- such as Rocky Marciano's first heavyweight championship belt -- out of storage. They've focused their efforts on opening a new permanent museum somewhere in Rosemont.
"It's our goal -- our collective goal -- to get all this memorabilia back on public display," said Enrico Mirabelli, a board member and the organization's attorney. "We're not looking to have a website where you can click and look at and like, 'Ooh.' We want a place where you can take your kids and your grandkids and you can say, 'See this, Grandson, I saw Joe DiMaggio play ball when I was a kid.'
"It gives you some heritage to share with your children and your grandchildren and you can do that when you have a place to go and take your kids."
After getting its start in a Bensenville storefront in 1977, the hall of fame established a larger headquarters in Elmwood Park, then moved to a 12,000-square-foot building next to the Northwest Tollway in Arlington Heights in 1988.
Its crown jewel became an 11,000-pound bronze statue of DiMaggio, the New York Yankees great who was the Italian sports hall's first inductee. The museum commissioned an Elk Grove Village sculptor to build the statue to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Yankee Clipper's historic 56-game hitting streak. Joltin' Joe himself came to Arlington Heights for the dedication of his 8-foot-tall likeness, which greeted visitors outside the building entrance.
The hall sold its building and 7.5-acre site in 1997 for a move to Little Italy, where it dedicated a new $12 million, 40,000-square foot museum in 2000.
Thousands of items of memorabilia from Italian American sports heroes filled the four-story building, a treasure trove that included Mario Andretti's Indianapolis 500 race car, Vince Lombardi's last coat worn as coach of the Green Bay Packers, Mary Lou Retton's gymnastic slippers and swimmer Matt Biondi's Olympic gold medals.
Just as the museum was settling in at its long-sought home in the heart of Chicago's historic Italian community, the 2008 recession, crushing debt and other factors put the property on the brink of foreclosure.
"We suffered the same fate as a lot of other charitable organizations at that time," Mirabelli said. "But just because the economy goes bad, the mortgage company doesn't say, 'Well, let me cut your mortgage in half.'"
In 2013, the organization sold the building to Minnesota businessman and philanthropist Nasser Kazeminy, who allowed the museum to stay and pay a small amount of rent.
That was until late last year, when Kazeminy identified a buyer for the building and gave the hall of fame 60 days to vacate. However, the deal fell through, and the building is still on the market for almost $6 million.
For nearly a year now, the hall has been without a permanent home, with its contents put in storage. It maintains a small office with a few employees on Clybourn Avenue in Chicago.
The organization is experiencing a better financial picture, according to its most recent Internal Revenue Service filing. Total revenue was listed at $550,909 and expenses of $397,183 for the financial year ending Dec. 31, 2017, according to the most recent public disclosure, which is required of nonprofits. By comparison, the organization reported total revenue of $369,171 and expenses of $387,401 at the end of 2016.
After the closure of the Taylor Street museum, Randazzo set his sights on Rosemont, hoping the hall of fame could be an added amenity to what's become an entertainment destination in the Northwest suburbs. He set up a meeting with Mayor Brad Stephens, who showed interest but suggested the hall of fame shouldn't reopen as a stand-alone museum.
Instead, Stephens said, it should partner with a restaurateur to open a combined venue, where some memorabilia could be placed around the dining room, connecting to a separate museum display area.
Stephens suggested a vacant 17,800-square-foot space in a shopping center on Mannheim Road, but the hall of fame board didn't think it was the best spot. Instead, that location is now undergoing renovations to become a Ross Dress for Less store.
For hosting the meeting, Stephens said, he received a thank-you note from Randazzo just days before his death at the age of 77. Stephens recalls how determined Randazzo was to reopen the museum.
"He said, 'I just need to find a place,' and a week later, he was gone," the mayor said. "Who's going to be the next George Randazzo? Because he was the driving force behind that organization."
Mirabelli said hall of fame board members will turn their attention back to their search for a permanent home after this weekend's dinner, which is the organization's biggest annual fundraiser.
The 42nd induction and awards gala, with individual tickets going for $300, is expected to draw about 600 patrons Saturday night to the Westin O'Hare hotel, where Mario Andretti will receive the hall's first lifetime achievement award. Other confirmed attendees include Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and Tommy Lasorda, whose golf outing over the summer at Royal Fox Country Club in St. Charles was the other major fundraiser for organization.
Money raised from the gala will go toward restarting the museum, future scholarships and other needs, hall officials said. IRS records show the bash pulled $243,195 in gross income and had $128,937 in direct expenses in 2017.
"We're not collecting money to have an online museum," Mirabelli said. "We're collecting money to get back into the bricks-and-mortar in a new innovative way that will carry us on for years and years. That's the vision of this board -- to continue George's legacy and continue this hall of fame."