Restaurateur John Genitti ‘had the greatest heart,’ dies at 67
His stand-up routine often was as spontaneous as it was hilarious, filled with putdowns of himself and anyone else he thought would be a good sport (“Don’t give me that Birmingham stuff — you’re from Berkley!”) on an evening when humor was the one gift that could enhance an experience in fun and good food.
What wasn’t always known on those festive nights, especially in the early days as John and Toni Genitti engineered a dining and entertainment mecca in Northville, was that long before his comedic dinner show, John had been busy since early morning, cooking chicken and Italian sausage, stirring soup, supervising all that entailed a magnificent seven-course meal at Genitti’s Hole In The Wall.
Mr. Genitti, 67, died Saturday from a heart attack in the town he influenced deeply during his past 40 years as a restaurateur and caterer.
“He’s the father of Northville — he really made it what it is today,” said Tom DeLisle, a television writer and producer who had been among Genitti’s best friends since their days as copy boys at the Free Press during the mid-1960s.
“But as what seems like a million people will tell you, he had the greatest heart of anyone I ever knew. His heart ended up failing, and I think it’s because he gave away too much of it to everyone. He was such a beautiful, amazing guy.”
It was shortly after his time as an Army sergeant in Vietnam, during which his Marine Corps brother, Charlie, died from a mortar round, that Genitti, along with new bride, Toni, bought a dusty, wood-floor grocery store in downtown Northville.
Soon, he was serving sandwiches and soup to construction workers. The lighter fare gave way to full Italian dinners, served at first for party requests, and made at home with help from his parents and grandmother. Later, he and Toni expanded next door – through a wall that gave the restaurant its name and signaled the evolution of a dining and entertainment destination that later included Genitti’s Little Theater.
Mr. Genitti, with his family often playing bit roles, would typically unleash his wit and stagecraft on an audience during two weekend shows and dinner sittings a night — an enormous expenditure of energy that never waned for a man so naturally industrious.
“On a Saturday in December, he might do five or six shows,” said his son, Andy, who along with sisters Laura and Tina now directs Genitti’s and its entertainment elements. “We might have a thousand people through the door, from the kids’ shows during the day, through evening.”
For all of his business acumen, which included a flair for real estate as well as his genius in Genitti’s kitchen, DeLisle said it was Mr. Genitti’s quiet generosity and personal selflessness that made him “truly a great man.”
His lone luxury, DeLisle said, was a recreational vehicle that enabled him and Toni to travel to Florida during the winter. Mr. Genitti could play golf, visit during spring training the team he worshiped, the Boston Red Sox, and enjoy boat rides with Toni and friends.
During one such boat trip, in the 1990s, Mr. Genitti and four cohorts boarded a 42-foot Grand Banks trawler and set out for Cuba, where they were greeted by army commandos carrying AK-47 rifles.
The visitors brought medical supplies as a goodwill offering and eventually all were cleared for travel, after which the reception was so cordial they were invited to attend Cuban National baseball games. A fast friendship with the Canadian ambassador to Cuba led to another bonus: An evening watching a Red Wings playoff game in the Canadian embassy.
Such was the flavor, color and bonhomie that became for Mr. Genitti all part of daily life and hourly adventures with people he invariably found fascinating.
Mr. Genitti is survived by his wife, son and daughters, as well as by five grandchildren and an aunt. Visitation will be Tuesday from noon to 8 p.m. at Casterline Funeral Home, 122 W. Dunlap, in Northville, with a tribute hour at 7 p.m.
Visitation will continue at 10 a.m. Wednesday at First United Methodist Church, 777 W. Eight Mile, in Northville, with the funeral service at 11 a.m. Burial, with full military honors, will follow at Rural Hill Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to VFW Post 4012, c/o Casterline Funeral Home, 122 W. Dunlap, Northville, 48167.