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Commercials of YesterYear: "Mr. Italy" and Perillo Tours

"Hi, I'm Mario Perillo..."

Growing up in the shadows of New York City in the early 90s, I saw the above commercial quite frequently.  As a kid, I thought you wouldn't ever find a more first-class experience touring the historic, centuries-old wonders of an exotic-sounding country far away across the ocean.  I believed when Mr. Perillo took you to Italy, it was as authentic and true of an Italian experience as any Italian vacation could possibly get.  

My Grandparents went on several big organized tours when I was younger, as people of their age and generation liked to do.  I was always disappointed that they never took a tour with Mario Perillo as their tour guide, but they really enjoyed their travels with Tauck Tours.  As I understand it, Tauck Tours are pretty top-notch, but to 8-year-old me, a Perillo Tour of Italy with "Mr. Italy" Mario Perillo as your personal guide was better than any other tour you could spend your money on.   

At the time, I also fully believed that Mario and Steve Perillo were the tour guides themselves.  Boy, would I have been disappointed!

Something also made me feel that their commercials were local, New York-centric ads for a New York-based company.  I'm willing to bet that when I saw them, they were most certainly national, if not mostly national, but it turns out that most of the Perillo family lived (and most still do) just minutes from where I grew up.  I didn't know that at the time, but like any kid that age, I lived in a bubble of what I knew or was familiar with and assumed that these familiar-looking people in advertisements I saw nearly every commercial break were local.

For nearly 80 years, the Perillo family has managed to keep the family business a "family business."  Created by Joseph Perillo in 1945, the company is about to enter its fourth generation of family leadership.  

Joseph was an Italian attorney who immigrated to the United States in 1925.  In 1945, he opened his business, Joseph Perillo & Sons Travel Agency and Translation Services, with only a single typewriter and $300 in the bank.  Still, he was able to quickly establish his Third Avenue storefront in the "Little Italy" section of The Bronx by offering help to many of the new Italian immigrants in the area.  His business was an ethnic Italian travel agency and a makeshift community center with businesses and social services for the local immigrant population.  

Joseph provided translations, foreign exchanges, and food parcels to post-war Italy, as well as help with immigration documents.  Steamship and later airline tickets were also sold for those who sought the opportunity to go visit family "back home."  Over the years, the company evolved from just a travel agency into a prominent tour operator specializing in guided tours of Italy.  

Joseph was committed to delivering high-quality, culturally enriching, and authentic experiences.  His company became well known for its detailed and organized itineraries, knowledgeable guides, and attention to customer satisfaction.  

Enter:  Mario Perillo.  

Having never been much further than 40 miles from his home in East Tremont, Bronx, Mario joined the Army in 1944.  When he returned home from the military, he didn't leap headfirst into the family business right away.  Instead, Mario worked part-time at the travel agency while he earned a law degree, like his father, from New York Law School.  

Mario's first taste of organizing tours of Italy was during the Catholic Holy Year, 1950, when he gathered a group of 200 parishioners from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church and sailed them to Naples on the SS Atlantic, with himself and Bishop Joseph Perricone as the trip's guides.  One of the main attractions of the trip was that having trusted leaders and organizers provided a home-like comfort and security for the many parishioners who had never even left the Bronx.  

The tour was all-inclusive, eliminating any surprise expenses while far from home.  His concept of
"Escorted and All Inclusive" became the hallmarks of his business for the next several decades.  Perillo Tours was soon the largest Italian-focused agency in New York City and the nation, and Mario's original company tagline was "Chi Viaggia Con Perillo, Viaggia Tranquility... When You Travel With Perillo, You Travel in Tranquility."  

Joseph retired in 1965, and Mario assumed control of the company.  Mario reportedly became obsessed with all things Italian.  He ate Italian foods almost exclusively, wore only Italian suits, and drove only Italian cars.  Similar to Gus Portokalos in the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," Mario was quick to tell friends and associates that things went wrong "because you're not Italian."  

In the 1970s, Perillo Tours closed all of its retail operations to become a wholesaler on trips to Italy and, eventually, other popular destinations.  The company hired travel agents from around the United States to become "trusted partners of Perillo Tours," cementing the company's name as "THE" company to use when visiting Italy. 

Perillo Tours grew very quickly during the early 1980s and moved its operation from the Bronx to Pearl River, New York, just a town or two over from where I grew up.  By the mid-1980s, Perillo was chartering as many as SIXTY Boeing 747s per year from Pan Am to support its demand for their popular 14-day escorted tours of Italy.  Perillo was consistently Pan Am's largest customer in the world during that period.  

Mario felt very strongly about the company's ability to provide extraordinary value to customers and decided to tell the world about it.  An innovative marketer, he adopted modern marketing tools to deliver his message.  

He quickly became famous for plain-spoken radio and television commercials, which he himself wrote and produced.  Having once said that you need to be willing to get in front of the world yourself, Mario preferred to be the face of his family business, not some "slick graphics or hired actor."  

Through these television commercials, Mario would passionately talk about the beauty of Italy, emphasizing culture, cuisine, and scenic landscapes.  His delivery and genuine love for Italy contributed to the success of these advertisements, but it made "Mr. Italy" a celebrity in his own right.  With these commercials, Mario took his father's little storefront travel agency and became the world's largest provider of guided tours to Italy.  

Mario continued to perfect his tour packages and made his first significant expansion out of Italy in 1985.  He made a (at the time) historic arrangement with the Paradise Island Resort and Casino in the Bahamas for a series of all-inclusive vacations.  The company still brags it was a massive success, with 10,000 customers booking trips in just the first 100 days.  This rousing success in the Bahamas led to the creation of Club Perillo aboard the Costa Riviera cruise ship. 

In 1988, the company moved its headquarters again, leaving Pearl River for Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.  

As Mr. Italy, Mario's face was seen nationally by tens of millions of people throughout the United States.  Mario reached such popularity that he had personal contact with many leaders of the day, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and even Pope John Paul II.  

To capitalize on his popularity, Domino's Pizza hired "Mr. Italy" to become their spokesperson for a series of television commercials for their new "Italian originals" line of pizza, sandwiches, and more.   

In 1997, Mario stepped back from running the operation, and his son Steve became President of Perillo Tours.  He had previously worked alongside his father with advertising and marketing, including those famous commercials of the 80s and 90s, but he became instrumental in helping Perillo expand to new destinations like the Caribbean, Hawaii, Spain, and the rest of Europe.  In 2003, Mario retired, and Steve became CEO.

Like his father, Steve recognized the power and reach of advertising, especially on the burgeoning internet.  Recognizing the reach of the internet long before his competitors, Steve focused on integrating Perillo Tours on the internet in the late 90s with online booking and electronic brochures and videos.  

In an interview with Travel Weekly, Steve Perillo said that the company is doing "just fine financially" in a post-Covid world.  However, the previous three years were a different story when international travel came to a near standstill during the pandemic.  Closed borders brought the Perillo's Italy and Spain business to a halt, although Steve claimed the Hawaiin bookings did well.  Those sales, however, couldn't make up for the losses in Europe, and the company relied upon government-issued Covid relief funds.  Perillo said the company was in a position to make a profit by the end of 2022 (at the time of the article) and beyond.  

During Covid, the company was forced to say goodbye to the memorable commercials in which Steve's father, and later himself, appeared.  Cutting its marketing budget to near zero, it no longer spends money on television and radio advertising.  

The company claims that the loss of television advertising is something they can live with, especially after the commercials were immortalized by Adam Sandler on "Saturday Night Live."  Playing the role of "Joe Romano," his "multi-generation family run" tour company describes in hilarious detail what "millions of Americans (mostly people from Long Island and New Jersey)" can expect on a tour of Italy from a guy who looks an awful lot like Steve Perillo.  

These days, the Perillo family is making news as they try to keep the company in the family for a fourth generation.  It's often said a family-run company often makes it through three generations, but the fourth is typically the end.  Perillo has high hopes of bucking that trend.  Devin Buonanno, who currently oversees Perillo's Hawaiian tours, is the heir apparent.  Buonanno, Steve's 27-year-old nephew and grandson of "Mr. Italy" Mario, has big shoes to fill.

Personally, I've been to Italy twice now, and each time we went, it was self-guided... if you can even call it that.  The first time we traveled there, we were 23 and so terribly young and naive.  I had just gotten my first airline's travel benefits, and given the ability to travel to Europe for free, we picked Venice, and off we went.  With hardly more than an hour's worth of planning, we grabbed our freshly printed passports and headed to the airport for a trip to a foreign country in an age before smartphones and the internet in our pockets.  My wife (then girlfriend) spoke the language much better than I did, from what she had learned in high school and growing up in an Italian-American family and neighborhood on Long Island, and that helped.  

Today, especially as a Dad myself now, when I think back on how those two dumb kids just picked a foreign country to romp around in for a few days, I just laugh and shake my head.  

But... they turned out just fine, I think.  

At the time, though, I would have felt much better if I had Mario "Mr. Italy" Perillo to show me around!