Peter Tomaras/Voices: The end of an era in local history

Peter Tomaras/Voices: The end of an era in local history

By PETER TOMARAS

The passing last spring of Peter "Tyke" Lessaris marked the end of an era in local history. A friend once expressed displeasure that older residents stereotypically associate us Greeks with restaurants. After all, people of Hellenic ancestry prominently populate every profession, from network television (George Stephanopoulos) to academia (University of Illinois College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris). Still, there is reason to link us to food service because, for much of the 20th century, Greeks presided over the confectionery/restaurant scene in downstate Illinois.

Peter George Vrinios opened Vriner's Confectionery here in 1898 and later partnered with George Vaky in the Tuscola Kandy Kitchen. They sold that Tuscola store in 1904 to Gus Flesor -- who, like my father and many immigrants, had been working on the railroads. After Vaky opened his eponymous Champaign store on Main Street near Neil, he mentored others who established confectionaries throughout Illinois. One was Thomas John Lessaris, whose first local venture was the Blue Fountain confectionery.

John Peter Pelafos ran The White and Gold in Urbana. Another Vriner faction, George and Louis, operated the Olympia in Champaign. Traditional confectioners used copper kettles and marble slabs to make handdipped chocolates, peanut brittle, candy canes and caramel. These pioneers had immigrated lacking language, money or education. Encountering discrimination never deterred them from their goals: assimilation as American citizens and education for their children. They personified the positive immigration that shaped this country.

For decades, Greeks ruled the local food scene. In the 1920s, Tom Lessaris opened the Elite Café, moving it to the fondly remembered Neil Street site in 1936. In the 1940s and 1950s, Champaign's most successful restaurants included Pete and Jul Tomaras' Quality Café (bought by Frank Genes in 1947), Savas Nicholas' Twenty-T Hangar and Katsinas Café. At one time, John Katsinas had three Champaign restaurants, plus others in Springfield and Collinsville. In the 1950s, Andrew Lambrakis bought Vaky's confectionery and later opened Urbana's Town and Country Steakhouse.

The last Champaign food business offering homemade candy was Chris' Candy Shop, operated by Gus Chrisagis and his daughter, Christine, until 1988. In 2003, Gus schooled Flesor's granddaughters, Ann and Devon, in the candy-making business, abetting their successful reincarnation of Gus' confectionery in its original Tuscola building. Stase Pomonis' popular Taffie's restaurant endured until his death in 2012; Stase's widow, Katie, now oversees Merry Ann's Diners.

Greek kids grew up schooled in hard work and good citizenship. Although their parents encouraged them to seek "professional" careers, a few stuck with the family business. Sam "Tyke" took over Vriner's, and his children kept it alive into the 1990s. Tyke's older brother George operated The Q pool hall and later a restaurant in Urbana. After growing up in The White and Gold, Peter "Tyke" Pelafos opened the Gondola restaurant, then created the Red Lion Inns in Champaign and Bloomington. Alexis "Lex" Katsinas was the face of Katsinas Tavern at Green and Neil, succeeded by sons John, Ted and Chris. John, George and Peter Lessaris, under mother Dina's guiding hand, kept the Elite humming. It's impossible to mention all deserving restaurateurs.

Throughout, Greek entrepreneurs have embraced Americanism while upholding the tenets of their heritage — family and faith. They honor their parents, godfather each other's children and, with rare exception, are exemplary citizens. John and George Lessaris, Gus Furla (the Black Steer) and my father founded our Greek Orthodox church. Today, few descendants remain in the food business; Lex's son Phil Katsinas is owner-operator of the Round Barn Banquet Center. Alternative careers have ranged from the arts (the late pianist, painter and poet James Russell Vaky) to medicine (Dr. Tom Peter Lessaris).

Only a book could adequately relate the story of the brothers Lessaris. All served their country in uniform: John hit the beach at Normandy, George led troops in Pacific island campaigns and Tyke served during the Korean conflict. They managed their restaurants wearing smiles and aprons, not suits. Seeing the future, they took a Burger Chef franchise in the early 1960s, and that led to their own 12-outlet Top Boy fast-food chain. Their Prospect store introduced a drive-up window before McDonald's had any.

When the Top Boys faded in the late 1970s, the brothers could have retired on their real-estate holdings, but Tyke spearheaded the reincarnation of Bob Dye's Chuck Wagon as Urbana's Elite Diner. The indefatigable trio ran that final venture for seven years. They were caring and generous. Remarkably, they never quarreled, but always laughed together through difficulties and endless work days. Tyke's son, Tom, credits "Yia Yia" Dina as "an amazing matriarch ... business-savvy... the glue that held the brothers together."

John, George and Tyke Lessaris were the best of us; their children and grandchildren are their shining legacy. We will miss them forever.

Peter T. Tomaras is a Greek-American former restaurant and hotel operator. His email is innkeeper88@att.net.