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April 2002

The DiPaolos -
Chips Off the Old Block

by Joseph RADDER

The DiPaolo family learned their lessons well from their father, Ilio—championship wrestler of the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, Ilio lost his life prematurely. He was hit by a car while crossing the street in the village of Hamburg in 1995. But his legend lives on.

To talk to his family...his widow, Ethel, his sons Dennis and Michael and his daughter Barbara, is to learn that this man had great strength, not only in his powerful body but in his mind and character as well.

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Top row (from left to right): Dennis’ wife Dawn and Elicia.
Bottom row: Dennis, Mom Ethel and Ilio.

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The DiPaolo family in 1995.

The large restaurant that he and Ethel started is truly a family restaurant...operated by the DiPaolo family for thousands of other families. Dennis says, “Families are dining out together today. And that’s great. We used to have two or three high chairs, now we have 16. It’s not unusual for a 10-year-old to say ‘I’ll have a steak medium-rare and oh, by the way, no onions on the salad.’ When we were kids we didn’t even know what a steak was.”

Ethel says, “This restaurant is a dream come true. Soon after Ilio retired from wrestling, we started it...as a pizzeria. We did it for the kids. And they made it what it is today.”

Dennis is general manager, Michael is executive chef and Barbara is daytime dining-room manager. Dennis’ wife Dawn also works frequently as a hostess. The second generation DiPaolos all started working in the restaurant when they were very young. They worked as pizza makers, bussing tables, folding napkins, doing whatever needed to be done.

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From left to right: Michael’s wife Patti, Jenna and Michael.

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From left to right: Kristen, Jesse, Barbara’s husband Ken,
Barbara and Jonathon.

Executive Chef Michael is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He went there after a year at Ashland College on a wrestling scholarship and training in the BOCES food service kitchen. Food service was always his first love. While at the CIA he served as an intern at the Mansard Inn and the Pierce Arrow restaurants.

General Manager Dennis is a graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College in Cleveland, where he played football. He is clearly proud of his legendary father and treasures memories of growing up in the DiPaolo household. On a recent trip to Introdaqua, Italy, Dennis and his mother, Ethel, attended the dedication of the town’s new sports complex, The Ilio DiPaolo Sports Center, named after its favorite son. There is also a statue of Ilio in this small town in Italy. Coincidentally, there is also a monument dedicated to Ilio in his small American town, Blasdell. It’s in front of the Blasdell Elementary School across from the restaurant.

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Ilio’s golf outing. Dennis, Bob Koshinski, Mike and Randy Ribbeck with People Inc. legend Al Boswell.

Barbara and her daughter Kristen share the management of the dining room—Barbara in the daytime and Kristen in the evenings. Even Barbara’s husband, Ken Hunt, helps out in the kitchen over the holidays. The Hunts have two boys, Jonathon in college and Jesse an 8th grader.

The memories of Ilio are evident everywhere. In the lobby of the restaurant, videos of his wrestling matches play for waiting customers. Pictures by the hundreds adorn the walls. However, it’s not just Ilio’s wrestling career that is memorialized at DiPaolo’s. His legacy of goodness lives on as well. Barbara remembers that shortly after her father died, a shut-in lady called up in tears. She said Ilio had always brought food to her home and now she didn’t know what she was going to do. The family had never heard about this, but Michael carried on the tradition.

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Barbara, Michael, Dennis and Ethel (Ilio’s wife),
admiring a monument to Ilio placed in Blasdell.

Dennis speaks proudly of the Ilio DiPaolo Scholarship Fund. When Ilio died, Bud Carpenter of the Buffalo Bills suggested they set up the fund. In the past seven years the Ilio DiPaolo Scholarship Fund has raised over $500,000. Half of this amount went to Children’s Hospital, the rest for scholarships and other worthy causes like People Inc. “When my dad was alive he’d give a kid $50 for books, things like that. Now we’re able to give kids thousands. He’d be very proud.”

It’s impossible to talk to the DiPaolo family without talking about their children. Dennis has a son named Ilio and a daughter, Elicia. Barbara has a daughter, Kristen, and two sons, Jonathon and Jesse. Michael and his wife Patti have a daughter, Jenna. All of Ethel and Ilio’s grandchildren follow in their parents’ footsteps and work in the restaurant when they’re not in school.

Ethel remembers the difficult early days. Back then wrestlers didn’t get paid very much and they had to drive their own cars from city to city. One time Ilio and Ethel departed for Toronto with only 11 cents left after they paid the twenty-five cent bridge fare. Sometimes they had to sleep in the car or, weather permitting, in a park under the trees. They didn’t have much to eat but Ethel would take a few bites and then pretend she had enough to eat so Ilio would eat the rest “to keep his strength up.”

It’s clear that Ethel has great strength of character as well. “I always thought my father was the boss,” Dennis said, “but I found out later it was really my mother.”

All has not been happiness in the DiPaolo family, however. There was Ilio’s tragic death in 1995, the very day he and Ethel booked a trip to Hawaii for their 44th wedding anniversary. Tragedy had already struck in 1989 when Ilio and Ethel’s daughter, Lisa and granddaughter Tara were killed in a car crash. Elicia, who is growing up in Dennis’ and Dawn’s home, is Lisa’s daughter.

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Andre Reed, Pete Metzelars, Will Wilford, Dennis DiPaolo, Jim Kelly, Don Bebe and Jim Ritcher.

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Dennis and Bud Carpenter receiving a check for the scholarship fund from Jim Ball.

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The DiPaolo family with the 2001 scholarship winners and Jim Kelly, Ruben Brown, Alex Van Pelt, Bud Carpenter and Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer.


“One thing my father taught us,” Dennis said, “is to treat people the way you’d like to be treated. And when your father weighs in at 265 pounds, you pay attention.”

There’s no doubt about it. The DiPaolos are fine people...all chips off the old block.

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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