1. Life & Culture

Looking for Leo: It's all politics at a nightclub for seniors

Ilir \u201CLeo\u201D Karruli, who owns Leo\u2019s Italian Grill on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor, visits with customer Dino Mahlis, of Palm Harbor at the restaurant in Palm Harbor. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times
Ilir \u201CLeo\u201D Karruli, who owns Leo\u2019s Italian Grill on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor, visits with customer Dino Mahlis, of Palm Harbor at the restaurant in Palm Harbor. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Aug. 24, 2018

PALM HARBOR — Regulars call it the "fallout" or the "mishap" or the "situation."

It has been eight months, but the breakup of Leo's Italian Grill and its longtime band, True Passion, resonates like a fair-to-middling car crash. Not fatal but nasty, both drivers turned in odd directions, the cause mysterious.

For 15 years, on Tuesdays, the band performed at Leo's, supplying the music that powered one of Tampa Bay's hottest dance spots for seniors. These people see the band as the soul of a club. When the band and restaurant owner Ilir "Leo" Karruli got in a dispute over booking dates, many blamed Leo for the breakup.

That brings us to the real character of this story. Leo.

He was used to such drama, and anyway, he had bigger fish to fry. In February, a month after the split, he filed to run for the state Senate seat vacated by Jack Latvala. Why would a guy with so much going on run for office? To find out, you have to keep showing up at Leo's. Leo had placed himself on a public stage and yet seemed to disappear around every corner.

His opponent in Tuesday's Republican primary, Ed Hooper, has raised $465,000 to Leo's $5,900. Leo has skipped some campaign events but put his huge red, white and blue signs up all over District 16, which extends from Clearwater to southern Pasco County. The restaurant is his emotional and literal campaign headquarters.

Of the 19 restaurants and two shopping centers he has owned, according to campaign documents, Leo's Italian Grill is one of two businesses he has left.

After the "incident," True Passion's fans left, leaving a sizeable dent at Leo's. Some longtime patrons swear they will never return. There are other clubs. They can stay connected to their social circles, a surprisingly fast lifestyle to anyone who associates seniors with condo associations. They don't need Leo.

But these defectors equal votes. Does Leo need them?

• • •

In June, Leo didn't want to talk about True Passion.

"I can't say nothing wrong about them," he said. "They're good musicians. They just left."

Customers were more willing to talk. When retired iron worker Lloyd Saunders got sick, he said, Leo made him a big pot of chicken soup. Once, Leo drove him to the DMV.

"He really cared," said Saunders, 81.

JoRae Stewart, who comprises True Passion with her husband, Bob, thinks back to almost uniformly good years playing at Leo's since 2011. A former nurse, she started working there a couple of years after marrying Bob, a third cousin of pop singer Rod Stewart. JoRae does the majority of the singing, Bob plays keyboards. Before Leo's, they played in Las Vegas. At Leo's, they had a following every Tuesday.

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Leo told them he considered them family. In late December, Leo asked the Stewarts if they would work Fridays as well. They were thrilled. True Passion turned down job offers, including some holiday gigs typically planned a year in advance.

Then, JoRae said, Leo canceled a gig.

"He said, 'I made a mistake, I'm so sorry.'?" He assured them the rest of the Fridays were still on, she said.

A week later, JoRae said, Leo had made another mistake: Fridays in February and March were also booked.

"I bawled," she said. "I was shocked."

Leo said they could perform on Fridays starting in April, but it was too late. The Stewarts walked away, saying they had lost money.

"It's like a husband who cheats on you," JoRae said. "You do it once, you'll do it again."

• • •

Dusty Furlong, 67, is a longtime Leo's regular. Dancing is important enough to her to bring her blind and deaf poodle, Toby, to her sister's house to babysit while she's out.

"Twice a week, minimum," Furlong said. "I've got to come dance and hug somebody!"

Furlong was the first to report there was a dust-up with True Passion.

How could someone smart enough to run a business that large make what was, by all appearances, an odd choice? How had that single decision affected the business and social mood of Leo's?

Leo said he would be at the club on a Tuesday. Later, he said he might not be there since Monday was July 2, his 51st birthday, and his family might have plans. This was odd because Leo's voter registration listed his birthday as Feb. 7.

He was there.

Leo gestured to the dining room and bar.

"Pretty much, this is my story," he said. "If you came here and you know Dusty, you know my story. I don't know what you want to know more, you know?"

The dance crowd started arriving at 7. Furlong waved from one of the long tables, where she was eating a white pizza. She looked out at the dance floor, which was a quarter full.

"Used to be, they stretched about halfway to the dance floor."

She said 40 people boycotted Leo's after True Passion left. One group of 10 or so defected as a block. But by July, some had started to trickle back.

"Where's Lou?" someone said. "Lou is late."

They worry when people don't show up. At this age, not showing up could mean the worst. Over the last 5 years, 15 regulars have died.

There are other concerns for Leo, running a place that caters to older customers. Most are not copious drinkers and can nurse cocktails for hours or even smuggle in miniatures. Then there's overhead for a 9,500-square-foot property, starting with an air conditioner that had to be replaced. Leo also resurfaced the dance floor.

"Dancers are very hard on a floor," Furlong said.

The lobby filled quickly as Miss Jenna and Company, the band that night, worked their set. Leo knifed through the crowd taking drink orders. He prides himself on being a boss who will work alongside you, harder and longer. He'll help cook, bus tables, clean restrooms.

He replenished drinks. He worked the tables, shaking hands and calling people by name.

Trust takes longer. Furlong went to Leo's for four years before she got a hug.

"Once he decides he likes you, then he will come by and chat, tell you a bit about his family and ask what is going on with you."

She smiled as a tall man in a blue blazer entered. Lou Lespier, 76, had made it. Lou was okay.

Furlong convinced Leo to show a small group his new campaign commercial. His office is cramped cubbyhole with stacks of record books and the number for the police scrawled on the wall. The television spot was filmed at Leo's. Customers talked about things that are wrong, and how Ed Hooper is in it for himself but Leo wants to give back.

All of them finished their messages the same way: "We need Leo."

• • •

The next week, Leo sat in the back of the dining room with two men. What were their names?

"You don't need to know that," said the campaign manager later revealed to be Jerry Peruzzi. "You worry about Leo."

In a 10 minute conversation, Leo talked about his start in business.

His birth date, he said, is a mix-up from when he entered the United States from Albania in 1991. Leo filled out the paperwork with European notation, which puts the day and then the month. Consequently, his records reflect his actual birth date of July 2, 1967, as Feb. 7. Officially, he has gone along with the error ever since. It's not a big deal.

When True Passion came up, his voice rose.

"I told you one time and I tell you again. I'm not upset with them. They're welcome anytime," he said. "I told Bob, he's a very good guy, it's a good band. If he called me tomorrow and he wants to come and play for me, he can come and play for me."

Did Leo have a temper? He said no, then said a non sequitur.

"There's no story here," Peruzzi said.

• • •

Seven dollars gets you into Post 7 of the American Legion in Clearwater. True Passion was on stage, knocking out oldies, pop and country. Paul Schultz sat with his wife, Kathy. He wore gold and diamond rings and a fedora. He is 96.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "True Passion worked on a handshake for 15 years. It's rare for musicians to operate on a handshake. We feel loyal to them. Not Leo."

"We won't go back," said Kathy, 76.

JoRae sang with a distinctive lilt, particularly on soulful tunes like Crazy or My Heart Will Go On. Bob handled the likes of Margaritaville and After the Lovin'.

Furlong had sprinkled a gold powder on the floor beneath Schultz's table. Dance wax, she said.

"We put it on the bottom of our shoes to help us fly."

Furlong goes to both bars now to see her friends. People at these clubs dance, flirt, date, make mistakes. Furlong had a disastrous experience with a 65-year-old man she met at Leo's whom she dated for several months.

"I tried to break it off with him and he wouldn't break off and he started stalking me," she said.

As True Passion moved to a break, Bob Stewart cued up the sound system.

"Get ready for the Wobble!"

• • •

On a Tuesday in August, Leo's was crowded. The Mark Anthony Band delivered covers with the panache of a classy cruise line. Don and Marian Leamy, both 71, glided to top 40. Don, a retired furniture salesman, wore blue shoes with rhinestones. Marian talked about dancing on American Bandstand. The band played Grand Funk Railroad.

When I hold her in my arms,

You know she sets my soul on fire.

Leo adjusted the satellite dish to catch President Donald Trump at a rally in Tampa.

A couple days earlier, Furlong relayed a message: Leo wanted to chat about his campaign. This wasn't a political story, but it was the first time Leo wanted to really talk.

In an empty banquet room, he started in about Hooper, who lives in Clearwater but has a home in Homosassa. People were underestimating Leo's chances in the primary, he said.

His English is broken, direct, jarring, another language unto itself.

"He's trying everything because he no live here," Leo said. "Coming August 28, this can be very upset here. Even the news people doesn't know, and the TV people doesn't know."

Knowing people leads to winning, he said. It was Leo's customers who encouraged him to run in the first place.

He grew up in Kavaje, Albania, a mechanic's son. His mother lacked shoes, wearing flip-flops to her factory job making olive oil and soap. The family lived in the shadow of Leo's grandfather, who fled the communist country during World War II. A sense of disgrace passed through his parents to him and his brothers.

He studied mechanical engineering and did a hitch in the army. He worked as a line cook in Italy before landing in Queens, N.Y. Before long, Leo was renting a Winnebago in Palm Harbor for $168 a month. He spent what he earned as a dishwasher on potatoes and Ragu, out of which he made gnocchi. He took cold showers to save $13 in propane.

"Every last penny I had, I saved it," he said.

Telling his story, he was like a different person. He gestured fiercely and held eye contact. Over several years, Leo said he saved and borrowed enough to buy a restaurant. Leo's Pizza opened in Dunedin in 1996, and Leo and new wife Irene kept a crib in the office for Andy, their firstborn.

Leo's Italian Restaurant in Dunedin became Leo's Italian Grill in Palm Harbor on Curlew Road, which then moved to the current Leo's on U.S. 19 in 2012. Now he has three children, one in college, and a net worth of $5.4 million from flipping a long string of businesses, according to his campaign documents.

"Right now I don't have to worry about it," he said. "Now I can buy the $13 in gas."

His political positions differ only slightly from Hooper's, but Leo feels strongly that the district is his home, and it's not Hooper's home.

A few months ago, Hooper paid Leo a visit at the club and asked him to drop out. To prove it, Leo held out his phone, which showed security footage of Hooper, 71, entering Leo's lobby. He pinched his thumb and forefinger to expand Hooper's face.

"He said, 'You don't need the job, you're busy enough over here.' I said, 'Why do I have to drop out? I'm doing this because people like me.'?"

Hooper confirmed the meeting.

"I said, 'You're not even trying,'?" Hooper said. "?'You're a nice man but I'm going to spend $300,000 to try to embarrass you because I'm not going to lose the primary by taking you lightly.' I told him, 'Leo, I know you can't win a primary and you know I know.' He's still not even going to events."

According to Leo, on that day Hooper claimed a Florida Senate subcommittee had set aside $2 million to back him.

Leo's voice rose.

"I said, 'Good, tell your Senate subcommittee I'm selling my business for $3 million. So who's more, $2 million or $3 million?'"

He told Hooper he already had a contract to sell Leo's.

Hooper said he never made the statement about $2 million in backing.

"That did not occur," Hooper said.

And since everyone was clearing the record, Leo does not have a contract on his business. But if someone wanted to pay him that much? He would sell. It would be the next phase of a climb that began a long time ago and has never stopped.

His hand chopped the air horizontally, a threshold exceeded.

On the dance floor, women freestyled to an oldie by the Ohio Players. Fiiiiire ... .

On TV, the president said, "Make America great again." Leo's patrons compared notes about each other, who had brought a date or who was having domestic troubles. The crowd passed from the floor to the bar like water through a set of gills, a living organism. Leo advanced quickly among them and mingled. Then he retreated behind the bar, into the gearbox of the machine he calls home.

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.