DeWayne's World - Supper is served

DeWayne Bartels

On Sunday, when the 81st annual ITOO Supper rolls around, North Peorian Leonard Unes will be in a suit and tie serving as Maître d.

Unes anticipates helping to seat people from as far away as Chicago and Burlington, Iowa.

That’s a far cry from Unes’ start with the dinner years ago when he was in high school serving water and coffee.

“How long ago was that?” I asked.

Unes smiled. “At least 12 years ago,” he said.

Unes considers himself lucky to be involved with surely the best-known ethnic event in Peoria, at all.

“One year as chairman, I made a disastrous decision to eliminate green beans from the menu. I don’t like green beans,” he said, laughing.

“I was almost kicked out of the club.”

Regardless of how many years Unes has served, he and ITOO Supper chairman Semaan Trad will be among hundreds preserving a long-standing family tradition. Trad has 38 years experience with the supper. 

Both men came up the way everyone does in the supper. They started by serving drinks and moved up  to food and eventually, they chaired the event.

“I learned a little more each year,” Trad said.

For Trad, the supper is a very personal thing.

The supper, he said, started with just four ladies trying to raise money for Lebanese charities.

“This supper is a story of pioneers who left their country to better themselves in this country. Over the years, this event has also made Peoria a better place,” Trad said.

“It’s the tradition of it that I like. Our great-grandparents started this. I was born in Lebanon. When I came to this country in 1969, it became near and dear to my heart.”

Unes also has a deep family connection to this event.

“My grandmother and grandfather on both sides were involved. I’m the third generation involved in my family,” Unes said.

“That makes it special. The memories make it special, along with all the folklore attached to the supper. It makes you feel good you are part of something your great-grandparents established and that it is still done in the manner they established.”

This is a tradition with a lot of hard work attached to it.

The down-and-dirty preparations begin the week before the supper, involving between 500-600 people.

Preparing the cabbage rolls takes up a lot of time. This year, 1,500 pounds of cabbage was purchased.

“We have to take each leaf apart by hand,” Trad said.

That work alone keeps about 40 people busy.

“We’ll make at least 15,000 cabbage rolls. It’s the most popular item,” Trad said.

However, If you have ever tasted one, you know why.

“People go nuts over them,” Trad said. “I don’t know why.”

Unes and Trad suspect it may be the secret blend of spices, a blend closely guarded. Maybe five people are privy to the mixture, which is kept in a safe.

“One lady makes the spices and no one else knows what it is. She hands the blend to the others working in the kitchen,” Unes said.

“I don’t even know the recipe.”

Little wonder. How can anyone who doesn’t like green beans be trusted? That may also help

explain why Unes has never been a helper in the kitchen.

“They never wanted my interference, er, help,” he said.