An Albanian native, DJ escaped his communist homeland and endured beatings and starvation in a Yugoslav prison before reaching the United States on Christmas Day in 1964.
Although he didn’t speak English and had no family in the United States, DJ settled in the Bronx, NY, and immediately found restaurant work as a dishwasher, teaching himself to run the equipment and understand rapid-fire instructions. He fell in love with a young women from Japan, Akiko Yasunaga, and the couple married and had a daughter, Judy.
Their marriage lasted nearly a decade, during which DJ, fueled by his desire to achieve the American Dream, worked his way up the ranks of restaurant management. He studied at New York University, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
A supervisor and director at Restaurant Associates, DJ worked with Chef Joe Baum, who created restaurants like the Four Seasons, a restored Rainbow Room, the Hawaiian Room, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, Tavern on the Green, La Fonda Del Sol, Zum-Zum, Quo Vadis, the Trattoria, the Brasserie, and Windows on the World, which was located on the top floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
As a Business Advisor with Restaurant Associates, DJ worked at Walt Disney World in Orlando from 1973 to 1974, where he hosted a banquet for then-president Richard M. Nixon, and for Motown’s singing group, The Supremes. From 1974 to 1978, DJ worked with Ancorp National Services, first as regional director and, ultimately, as vice president. There, he was responsible for the operation of 230 restaurants across America, including those servicing the workers of the Alaskan Pipeline.
In 1978, with John F. Gilmore, founder of the Gilmore Collection Restaurants, he opened Thornapple Village Inn in Ada, Michigan. The restaurant was voted the top French restaurant in Michigan, and former President Gerald Ford was a regular customer there.
In 1991, DJ, now divorced, moved to Florida to retire, and in 1992 when the communist regime in Albania fell, DJ ended his self-imposed exile and returned to visit his family. While there, he met his second wife, Roza, and on August 13, 1993 Roza joined DJ in the United States, where they married and raised a son, Jason, born in 1994.
Together, the couple started a silk-screening business, but DJ was a born restaurateur, and it wasn’t long before the family bought a small restaurant in Pinellas Park, Jessi’s Family Restaurant, that allowed DJ to return to the work and people he enjoyed so well.
During the next two decades, DJ and Roza helped dozens of Albanian citizens to move to the United States, providing advice, moral support, and work for a growing and ambitious community. DJ’s daughter and son learned to admire and emulate his work ethic: Judy is the owner of a day spa and salon in Maryland, while Jason is continuing in his father’s footsteps as owner of an expanded Jessi’s Restaurant, located at 8331 – 66th St., North.
Several hundred friends and family turned out for DJ’s funeral on Sunday, April 2. Interment was at Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd.
“DJ was loved by so many people,” said Roza following the service. “He always found something in common with everyone he met. He had such a great sense of humor, so much love for humankind, so much compassion. He always had a charm about him. He will be missed by so many people.”
“My father was not only a wonderful parent, he was my mentor,” added Jason. “When he first became ill, I was just 18, and he helped me develop the skills and the confidence to take on the responsibility of running our family’s restaurant. His legacy is the brighter future he first envisioned when he came to this country.”