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Sal Lombardo; founded E. Boston institution

Sal and Mabel Lombardo, in their first ballroom upstairs at their function hall in East Boston. The site was open from 1963 to 2000 and a second hall in Randolph remains open. Sal and Mabel Lombardo, in their first ballroom upstairs at their function hall in East Boston. The site was open from 1963 to 2000 and a second hall in Randolph remains open. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2000)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 19, 2008
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The rags-to-riches tale alone would have been enough to secure Sal Lombardo's legacy in East Boston. A son of Sicilian immigrants, he rose from working in his father's meat market as a boy to opening supermarkets, investing in neighborhood real estate, and establishing Lombardo's, a function hall that saw hundreds of Eastie families through 37 years of birthdays, wedding receptions, anniversaries, and retirement parties.

Then there was Thanksgiving. For more than 30 years, beginning at Lombardo's in East Boston and then at Lombardo's in Randolph, Mr. Lombardo led his family and a cadre of volunteers in serving Thanksgiving dinner to those in need of a meal, a home, or simply an impromptu family for a few hours.

"He said, 'Why don't we hold a dinner so people don't have to be alone?' " said his son Vincent of Milton. "It started out with 100, and this Thanksgiving, we'll probably host 800 needy people."

Mr. Lombardo, whose family and companies through the decades helped fund a host of civic organizations and scholarships, died Saturday in his Quincy home of congestive heart failure. He was 86.

While using his business sense to establish a series of Liberty Supermarkets in East Boston and along the North Shore, Mr. Lombardo remained just as interested in helping others "because he came from nothing," his son said.

Interviewed when the family closed the Lombardo's function facility in East Boston, Mr. Lombardo spoke succinctly about why his family was known for contributing to seemingly every local charity that solicited a donation.

"It makes me feel good," he told the Globe in July 2000. "It makes my whole family feel good."

His son said yesterday that "it sounds corny, but it wouldn't be Thanksgiving if we couldn't serve a meal to all these people."

Salvatore A. Lombardo's parents were from Sicily, and he reminded his children that their heritage was distinct.

"He said, 'If you're Sicilian, that's different than being Italian; that's something special,' " said his daughter Paula Lombardo-Colia of Braintree.

Born in Hartford, Mr. Lombardo was an infant when his family moved east, settling in Somerville. In 1927, his father launched the family's presence in East Boston when he opened a meat market on Porter Street.

Mr. Lombardo graduated from Somerville High School, working at the family's market when he wasn't in school or studying, and he stressed to his children and grandchildren the wisdom of applying themselves at school.

"He always wanted to see his grandchildren's report cards, and he showed them his report cards," his daughter said.

"He saved all his straight-A report cards and expected that from us and from his grandchildren," his son said. "He wanted us all to be the best we could be."

After serving in the Army in Germany during World War II, he returned home and met Mabel DiTullio one afternoon in Quincy. Sensing that she was the one, Mr. Lombardo persuaded Mabel to let him escort her to her senior prom, even though it meant breaking off a date with another young man.

They married in 1946 and started their family while he worked days in the market and went to Boston University at night under the GI Bill, pursuing a degree in business administration.

"When I graduated in 1956, my wife was six months' pregnant with our fourth child," he told the Globe in 2000.

Two years later, he bought the former Woolworth Building on Porter Street in East Boston and opened the Liberty Market grocery store. In 1963, the family bought a shopping plaza across the street and moved the store into what they called Liberty Plaza. A former bowling alley that was part of the complex became the home of Lombardo's, the family's first function hall.

"There had been a bowling alley over our supermarket that had shut down, and our employees asked about having their Christmas party there," Mr. Lombardo told the Globe in 2000. "We started getting more and more requests for the use of the hall and let them do their own catering. Then, I said, 'Why don't we provide those services?' "

Lombardo's became part of the fabric of East Boston life, with many families using the hall for a litany of milestones, from First Communion to retirement. Meanwhile, Mr. Lombardo kept branching out, often building his business in an old-fashioned way.

"He made a lot of deals with a handshake and his word," his daughter said. "A lot of times he didn't have any money, and he got loans. Banks respected his word."

As his ventures such as real estate turned successful, Mr. Lombardo didn't hesitate to use some of the profits to help out those around him, from a long list of charities to those who were down on their luck.

Mr. Lombardo had served as president of the East Boston Chamber of Commerce and was a leader in several business organizations.

"My father was a passionate man about his family - family came first - his businesses, and helping people," his son said. "He passed that to his children, and we're passing it to his grandchildren."

In addition to his wife, his daughter Paula, and his son Vincent, Mr. Lombardo leaves another son, Dennis of Wayland; another daughter, Nina Barros of Westwood; five grandsons; and four granddaughters.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. tomorrow in St. John the Baptist Church in Quincy. Burial will be in Blue Hill Cemetery in Braintree.

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