Business Profile | Ron Onesti

August 2017 View more

What does Ron Onesti do? It might be easier to ask what the veteran entrepreneur and promoter doesn’t do. While Onesti’s decades-long career has largely been centered on entertainment— including his current role as president and CEO of the company that bears his name—he is also a tireless proponent of Italian-American causes and organizations, a restaurateur (his newest venture is the music-themed Rock ’n’ Ravioli in Evanston) and a prolific writer and frequent media contributor.

Onesti books and manages both the historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles and its accompanying 1920s speakeasy, Club Arcada, with some of the world’s most iconic stars, including Mickey Rooney, Jerry Lewis and Martin Short. Yet to hear him tell it, he’s just getting started.

What first brought you to the Arcada Theatre? How would you characterize the work you have done there?
I had been producing shows for about thirty years—from corporate events to festivals—so I had a lot of relationships with headline entertainers, but I was always looking for my own place or my own stage to present acts and take advantage of those relationships.

About eleven years ago I was managing (Beatles tribute band) American English and booking a lot of the band’s gigs at the Arcada, and I found out the current owner had left. So I went back and forth with him, put some offers in, and before I knew it the Arcada was mine. The economy caved just as I was getting started with the theater, so it was quite an experience just to hold onto it during those early years, let alone try to build it. But after white-knuckling it for a few years, we put together a really good team and we all put our heads down and took it one show at a time, and now we do over 200 shows a year and we’ve become one of the top live music venues in the country.

As a longtime contributor to and representative for many Italian-American causes and organizations, what does it mean to you to be able to put on Italian-themed festivals like this month’s Little Italy Fest-West in Addison?
I come from a very traditional Italian household. I was born on Taylor Street in Little Italy, so I was able to experience my heritage quite a bit growing up, and that’s still very important to me. But as generations pass, that experience is getting lost. So these Italian-American events that I put on aren’t really about the financial aspect, but more about fostering that heritage for generations to come.

Which among your wide range of business ventures and civic organizations really stands out as a true passion?
The National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame has been tremendously rewarding, because I was there from the start as a lead designer of all of the exhibits. And as producer of their gala events, I’ve been able to recognize people like Joe DiMaggio, Mario Andretti, Anthony Rizzo, Tommy LaSorda and the family of Rocky Marciano. Being part of honoring those proud Italian-American athletes who have come from immigrant families has really brought a lot of pride to our heritage.

I’m also very dedicated to the Columbus Day Parade. I’ve been part of it for thirty-five years now, and it’s where I met my wife. It continues to be a great showcase for the Italian-American community.

When you look back on your entire career thus far, what are you most proud of?
I love the idea of providing experiences that bring people back to a simpler and happier time in their lives. The biggest charge I get from doing what I do is not really about watching the entertainers—even though I’m probably one of the biggest fans around. It’s when I’m backstage and I’m looking out at the audience, and I know there are people out there who have lost loved ones or had a fight with their spouse or lost a job, and I know it’s my responsibility to take them away from that for a few hours. That’s why I’m very serious about what I do, because it’s not just about putting on concerts or collecting money, it’s about providing those memorable experiences for people.

Is there anything you haven’t done in business that you’d like to?
Over the years, you think about doing things and think, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” But you’re young and you’re scared and you’re worried about losing money. But at this point in my life, I’m just going full speed ahead with everything. Any concept that I’ve had in my head for the last thirty years I just want to blast out right now.