In the end, maybe his heart was too big for this world. It is with great sadness that the Sand Paper reports that Alfredo Russo, 60-year-old charismatic long-time owner of Junkanoo, the Fresh Catch Bistro and – more recently – the Sunset Beach Tropical Grill, died early Sunday morning of complications following a ruptured valve in his heart.
“He suffered a ruptured aorta on Friday and went to Health Park, where the doctors prepared him for emergency surgery,” Joe Orlandini, a business associate of Russo’s, told us. “They told him he had less than a 50% of chance of surviving that surgery, though, so his son – who lives in California – was called and he was able to fly in in time to be with Alfredo when he died.”
Over the years, Russo became something of a living legend on Fort Myers Beach – taking over the Junkanoo site in 1987, and later opening Fresh Catch Bistro next door and Mama Angie’s downstairs, though that establishment closed in May of 2012. In 1995, Russo also built the iconic ‘Ship’ restaurant in Bonita Springs, a replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon that was torn down in 2013
Last year, he sold the land on which Junkanoo and Fresh Catch sits to Orlandini in preparation of a new phase in his life – Sunset Beach Grill – which he opened last November in Time Square.
“This is emotional, because this will probably be my last grand opening,” said a giddy Russo last December, at the Grand Opening of Sunset Beach. “This community has been supporting me for 30 years, and here it is again.”
“He was a great man to all of us,” Orlandini said. “He had so many friends because he was always around, always ready to share what he had with others. People from all over the country know him because when they came to eat at his restaurants, he’d remember them and sit with them.”
During his tenure, Russo and his establishments played host to countless weddings, benefits, concerts and events, with Alfredo ever-present to lend a helping hand or offer a bit of levity for nervous brides. He was also a marketing genius – remodeling the dusky old Top O Mast building into a spacious and airy beach grill that has been packed with happy patrons since the moment Russo opened the doors.
“Alfredo was a professional, astute restauranteur and businessman,” said Sandy Sandness, Advertising Manager for the Sand Paper who worked with Russo on a nearly daily basis. “I really enjoyed working with him.”
The Sand Paper will have more details as word spreads over this holiday weekend of Russo’s sad passing, but one thing that is already obvious is that he leaves behind some pretty big shoes to fill.
“This is a huge loss,” Orlandini said. “He was loved by so many. Whatever he had was yours – that’s the kind of person Alfredo was. I’ve never known anyone like him.”
Keri Hendry Weeg