CONNECTED BY BLOOD
My Kind of Mob Town
By TONY ESPOSITO
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tony Esposito is the grand-nephew of the late “Frankie the X” Esposito and comes from a family with a long history of ties to the Chicago Mob. His book, Union Boss, is expected to be published later this year.
CHICAGO IS ONE of the top Mob cities in America. When you hear talk about the Chicago Mob, it’s not just the City they’re talking about, it’s also the suburban centers where many Mob-tied businesses and operations are based.
HISTORICALLY, the Mob has used towns like Cicero and Chicago Heights to run gambling, prostitution and loan-sharking operations. Since the early 1900s, the Mob has favored towns like River Forest and Oak Park as quiet places to build palatial homes.
ONE SUBURBAN TOWN that has definitely been long known as a Mob town is Melrose Park. Located about ten miles straight west of the City, Melrose Park has a rich tradition of Mob activity, Mob excitement and Mob history.
WAY BACK in the 1920s, Johnny Torrio, who had just become the Boss of Chicago’s Mob after the killing of his uncle, “Big Jim” Colosimo, was ready to form his own empire. Torrio sent Mike “Da Pike” Heitler, Jake Guzik, a young thug just in from Brooklyn named Al Capone and Carl Torraco, “A.K.A. Charles Carr,” out into the surrounding suburbs to open operations.
IN THE MOB’S “glory days,” the Prohibition era, Charles Carr set up a still in the basement of a house on 14th Street in Melrose Park, with underground pipes connecting that house with the building next door. The house next door was then occupied by the young Joey Aiuppa, who would go on to build a major name for himself in the Chicago Mob. In those days however, he took the moonshine that was distilled in Charles Carr’s basement, barreled and bottled it in his own, then moved it out into the speakeasy trade.
CARR AND AIUPPA would then load the barrels and cases of booze onto a truck, cover them with a tarp, then lay down flowers and plants to make the truck look like it was ready for either a funeral or a wedding. And, for a final realistic touch, Charles Carr would have his two younger sisters, Mary and Madeline, ride in back with the flowers. Only the cops thought the “flower truck” was, in fact, a flower truck. Others, who knew Carr and Auippa, would often follow the truck so they could find out where their next drink was coming from.
MELROSE PARK is well known for the annual Italian Feast held at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. Three years ago marked the 100th anniversary of this yearly event which, until just recently, used to feature a Mob section of the Feast. There used to be a gambling tent right next to the Church. I loved that tent, and what went on inside it, when I was a kid. So did thousands of other people.
ON THE FINAL DAY of the Feast, which falls on a Sunday each year, Church people walk through the streets of Melrose Park in a procession carrying statues of religious figures.
The huge statue of the Virgin Mary, carried in this annual procession, always winds up with her feet covered with twenty and fifty-dollar-bills.
YEARS AGO, Charles Carr and Joey Aiuppa would sit on Auippa’s front porch on the final day of the Feast, enjoying the day, accepting tributes from people who were, in one way or another, indebted to the Mob, and just playing the role of neighborhood “Godfather.” My own mother recalls how, as a ten-year-old girl, Joey Auippa gave her a twenty-dollar-bill in keeping with the spirit of the day.
BUT THE FEAST was not always a happy event. In 1959, for example, just before the procession was to begin, Joey Bronge, a local connected guy who made his living in the beer business, was shot and badly wounded right before the eyes of dozens of witnesses. Melrose Park being Melrose Park, all the witnesses developed either sudden blindness or amnesia or both.
JOEY BRONGE lived in a coma for several months after the shooting, earning the nickname, “the man who refused to die.” There was speculation at the time that Bronge had been shot because he was facing an upcoming trial for perjury, and might be expected to rat on Mob guys like Joe Gagliano and Tony Accardo and their ties to the jukebox business. It was also thought that some of the younger Mob guys went after Bronge as part of the endless power struggle that goes on in the Outfit. But the dominant rumor of the day was that Bronge was whacked on orders of an ex-River Forest Judge named Steve Anselmo, who was also a Melrose Park beer distributor. It seems that Bronge and Anselmo (who is a relative of mine), were alleged to have gotten into a fist fight the day before the shooting over who had the right to sell beer at the Italian Feast.
MELROSE PARK was always a Mob guy’s kind of town. Rocco Degrazia’s Casa Madrid restaurant was the place where Sam Battaglia would hold court and decide which juice loan suckers would get near-fatal beatings when they got behind in their payments—and which would be beaten to death. The Casa Madrid was also the favored hangout of Mob guys like Joey Lombardo (whose son, Joe Jr., is currently being forced out of his cushy position with the Laborers’ Union), Joe Gagliano, “Wee Willie” Messino, and Rocco Infelise, who is not likely to ever get out of the Federal penitentiary.
OTHERS WHO liked the Casa Madrid included “Tough Tony” Capezio, “Blind Louie” Cavallaro and “Ding Dong” Carusiello.
ELSEWHERE in Melrose Park, long-time Mob boss Jackie “The Lackey” Cerone made his headquarters at Rocky’s Restaurant on North Avenue across the street from the Zenith plant. I lived right down the street from Cerone’s headquarters and would often see my father talking to him. To this day, I don’t understand why my father would even treat Cerone like a human being. Cerone was one of the guys who Sam Giancana sent to Florida in 1962 to kill my uncle “Frankie the X” Esposito, whose body was supposed to have been cut up and fed to the fishes. That contract was called off at the last minute by intervention from Paul “The Waiter” Ricca.
SO, I’M ONE of those guys who used to call Melrose Park home. And guess what. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
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