|Benny and Nada Mehmeti|
Benny’s history certainly bore out this scenario. By ethnicity an Albanian, he grew up in what was then Yugoslavia but is today Macedonia. Benny always liked America. When a cousin returned to visit from the USA with tales of earning $100/week, Benny decided to escape to Italy to a refugee camp. From there he made his way to Chicago where he joined his brother and uncle and began his now 44 year career in the restaurant business. He started as a dishwasher at a Greek restaurant, progressed to busboy and then bartender. When enough money was saved, he bought a diner with his brother. Thus began 20 years of buying and selling restaurants, living in Dallas and Chicago, and finally in 2001 purchasing Cappizzi’s in Paris.
I asked him about the number of Albanians owning Italian restaurants. He said if you see a small Italian restaurant, there’s a very good chance it’s owned by an ethnic Albanian. Many Albanian immigrants entered the U.S. in New York where they first worked in Italian restaurants. Traditionally, the restaurant business is an obvious but challenging place for a new immigrant to start. Once they learned to cook Italian food, they began buying their own restaurants. The dad would cook, the mother worked out front and the children helped where needed. For Albanians, the Italian restaurant industry has been equivalent to Indians owning hotels, and Vietnamese working as nail technicians.
The original plan was to stay in Paris for five years but the Mehmetis were so well received they stayed. The restaurant quickly attracted a following thanks to Nada’s incredible smile and warm nature. She never forgets a face and is always offering a helping hand. They built upon the business that had been started by the two previous Albanian owners. Benny began to coach soccer, a sport he played wherever he lived. He was so successful that their son, Ilme, is now the captain of the PJC soccer team. Benny is a familiar presence at Ilme’s games, decked out in one of his 34 hats.
I decided to talk to other Italian restaurants in the area to determine if all were owned by ethnic Albanians. In Clarksville, Alek and Aurora Lleshi own the downtown Italian Bistro, rated the number one restaurant in that town on Trip Advisor and featured in Texas Highways magazine. Alek’s family has a strong connection with Italy as his parents lived in Florence but they are native Albanians. Alek is eager to make you feel welcome. His speech is filled with appreciation for his family and how well received they’ve been in Clarksville. The restaurant has a loyal following who enjoy the food and Alek’s attention.
What I enjoyed in meeting these families was the consistency of their respect for the United States. Two of them described their life here as “being reborn”. All thanked God for their families and opportunities. “God Bless America” said Johnny Dervishi many times. And I say, “ God Bless Albanians” for their enthusiasm and contributions to America.