John A. Grisanti

John A. Grisanti

Birth
Death 4 Mar 1995 (aged 66)
Burial Unknown
Memorial ID 79955000 · View Source
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His heart was as big as he was. That's what friends and fans often said about John Grisanti, perhaps Memphis's best known restaurateur who was affectionately called ''Big John.'' Grisanti died Saturday night at the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Tulsa surrounded by his immediate family. He was 66. A large and flamboyant man who was said to be generous to a fault, Grisanti was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in March 1993. Memorial services will be Wednesday at St. Louis Church in Memphis. Memorial Park has charge. His son, John Grisanti Jr., said the cancer went into remission but during a checkup doctors discovered another type of cancer - squamous cell - in his lung late last year. Doctors removed the tumor and the family later transferred him to Tulsa where he stayed about a month. He died at 7:01 p.m. Saturday. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer he continued to embrace life and his role as an ambassador for the city. "I will remember him as my bigger-than-life father," said John Grisanti Jr. "He enjoyed life more than anyone I knew. It makes us appreciate what we all have." "You just don't meet guys like him anymore," said wine consultant Shields Hood of Athens Distributing Co. "He put Memphis on the map in wine and food circles and for his gifts to the community." Grisanti opened the Original Grisanti's Restaurant at 1489 Airways in 1962. A Memphis landmark for both locals and visitors, the restaurant was where Grisanti played host to celebrities such as actor Tom Cruise, baseball player Stan Musial and football coach Paul 'Bear' Bryant. Though semiretired in recent years, Grisanti was often spotted at the restaurant greeting guests and kissing babies with his usual gracious flair. In 1984, Grisanti wrote Wining and Dining with John Grisanti, featuring recipes for his baked manicotti and chocolate cheesecake. But it did not reveal what was perhaps his most coveted recipe: the famous meat sauce, which Grisanti said was 'the lifeblood of the restaurant.' Despite his fame as a restaurant owner, Grisanti was perhaps best known as a wine connoisseur. He had a personal wine cellar with about 2,000 bottles. Often, when taking friends on tours of his cellar, Grisanti was known to ask his guests' birthdate, then pull an expensive wine of that year off the shelf as an impromptu gift. "For a guy that was sixty-something, he had more enthusiasm for wine than a 22-year-old kid," said Hood. Town & Country in 1981 called him one of the country's top and most colorful wine collectors. The Wine Spectator, a national wine publication, gave a best-of-excellence award to the restaurant in 1991. The wine-tasting club Les Amis du Vin (the friends of wine) named him restaurateur of the year in 1982. As president of the 300-member Memphis chapter, and later as governor of the Tasters Guild, Grisanti brought to Memphis wine luminaries such as Peter Sichel, Robert Parker, Rodney Strong and Andrea Sartori of the Italian winemaking family. For several years, he served as a judge in the huge wine competition at the Los Angeles County Fair and also led travel groups from Memphis to the California wine country. Grisanti often combined his love for wine with his unflagging commitment to charitable organizations across the city. In the late '70s and early '80s, Grisanti raised $100,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital by organizing two wine-tasting dinners. One of the events featured an $18,000 jeroboam - the equivalent of 4 bottles - of Chateau Lafite 1864 and the other, a $31,000 standard bottle of Lafite from the 1822 vintage. When Grisanti bought them, he set world records for buying the most expensive wines at auction, gaining him fame in wine circles across the country. "John was a big ambassador for the hospital," said former mayor Dick Hackett, senior vice president of St. Jude/ALSAC. "He was as sincere a donor and fund-raiser for St. Jude as anyone I've known." In addition to his benefit events for the hospital, Hackett said Grisanti was known for many unpublicized acts of kindness to the families of children who were patients. He went out of his way to do things for people that were unsolicited," said friend and physician Larry Whitlock, with whom Grisanti founded a philanthropic group called The Benefactors. The organization raised money through wine tastings and auctions for such charities as the Madonna Day School and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Memphis. His charitable acts won him the prayers of people throughout the region. "We haven't gone through all the cards" that were sent by hundreds of well-wishers, said Dolores 'Dough Dough' Katsotis, his daughter. "He had a huge banner from all the kids at St. Jude." About a month ago, she sent a prayer letter to 500 people. "We were asking for a miracle for my dad to be healed." But when that wasn't in the cards, Katsotis said that during his final hours, the family stayed by her dad's side. "We sang and we prayed" around his hospital bed, singing such songs as Amazing Grace, God is So Good and He is Lord. "My Aunt Leona continued to read the monitors. She said, 'The angels are here. The angels are hovering.' I told him I saw the gates opening and he could go. We told Daddy we would carry on his name in all that we did." To continue her father's generosity, Katsotis is donating to the Make-A-Wish Foundation the proceeds of a cookbook called Cooking Adventures with Chef Dough Dough. The book, which will be released this spring, is dedicated to her father. "It was hard. It was laboring," she said. "But we all gave him permission to go and the Lord's timing was perfect." All the immediate family was at his bedside, except for John Jr., who had just returned to Memphis to check on the family's business. Patricia Coletta, executive director of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, said Grisanti embraced her organization as a donor, volunteer and a friend. In a typical example of his panache, Grisanti last year dressed as a woman at a bachelor auction to raise money for Make-A-Wish, she said. "This was his idea, he wanted to come dressed as a woman," said Coletta. A makeup artist worked on his face and he put on a dress and sat in the audience. When the first bachelor came on stage, Grisanti jumped up to place a bid. "The bachelor didn't know what was going on. John just looked like a big ugly woman," said Coletta. Grisanti chased the bachelor around the stage, to the audience's great amusement, and later helped moderate the show. The event raised more than $10,000. Grisanti was a communicant of St. Louis Catholic Church. "He was devout to the Church and to the Lord," said Msgr. Paul Clunan, who retired after 34 years at St. Louis. "He loved people and he was a very special person." Grisanti graduated from Christian Brothers High School in 1947 and is a member of the school's hall of fame. In 1989 he was named a Knight in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. The Optimist Clubs of Memphis and Shelby County named him citizen of the year in 1984 for efforts in raising funds for St. Jude. In 1993, Grisanti was named Italian vice consul, a largely honorary position with a few official duties. In 1989 he was named a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, a rare honor for an American. He was a founding member of UNICO Memphis, an Italian-American service organization. Grisanti's parents, Rinaldo Grisanti and Mary Gusi, were Italian immigrants. In 1914, Rinaldo opened a restaurant, E. Gusi & Co., with his father-in-law Eparco Gusi at 838 S. Main. Grisanti took over the operation of his father's restaurant in 1954 after serving in the Army during the Korean War. After two fires, the restaurant moved to 1397 Central. He was in a brief restaurant partnership with baseball player Tim McCarver and also tried the motel business. His sons, John Jr. and David, plan to continue operating the restaurant. Katsotis, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, conducts cooking classes and parties for children ages 6 and up. She also has been selected to host a cooking show for children on the Fox Television Network. He also leaves his wife of 40 years, Dolores, three sisters, Vivian Padgett, of St. Simons Island, Ga., Gloria Pieroni of St. Louis, and Leona Barnett of Memphis; two brothers, Arthur Grisanti and Jimmy Grisanti , both of Memphis, and seven grandchildren. The family requests that any memorial contributions be made to St. Jude or the American Cancer Society. (Published in The Commercial Appeal on March 5, 1995; authhors Christine Arpe Gang, Fredric Koeppel, Lisa Jennings, Michael Donahue and Lela Garlington contributed to this story)


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  • Created by: Carole McCaig
  • Added: 6 Nov 2011
  • Find a Grave Memorial 79955000
  • Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for John A. Grisanti (25 Oct 1928–4 Mar 1995), Find a Grave Memorial no. 79955000, ; Maintained by Carole McCaig (contributor 46785778) Unknown.