NIAGARA FALLS – For a man who’s built two restaurants and hotels, given millions to charity, and funded a park that includes monuments to fallen heroes and a statue of himself, Russell Salvatore has a simple way of describing his birthday party.
“We just come and drink, have a ball, dance,” he said. “Another year!”
His 83rd year, to be exact. Salvatore, owner of Russell’s Steaks, Chops & More and Salvatore’s Grand Hotel on Transit Road celebrated his birthday Sunday night with a few friends.
Three hundred fifty friends, that is, and with “steaks this thick,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart while previewing the party during an interview with The News last week.
Salvatore’s party happened Sunday night inside Stir Nightclub at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel in Niagara Falls. It included an ice sculpture, deejays, a tribute video, a letter from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and a Britney Spears impersonator, complete with backup dancers.
“Russell will tell you it’s just a gathering of friends, although your definition and my definition of a gathering of friends is very different than Russell’s,” said John DiSciullo, an executive with WBBZ-TV and friend of Salvatore’s.
“It just happens to be at the Stir Nightclub, with Vegas entertainment and a letter from the governor.”
For decades, Salvatore has been a widely known philanthropist and restaurateur. His first grandiose enterprise was Salvatore’s Italian Gardens in Depew and its accompanying Garden Place Hotel, both of which are now run by his son, Joe.
In front of his current restaurant, Russell’s, his Patriots and Heroes park includes sculptures dedicated to the Twin Towers and Flight 3407, which crashed in Clarence. There’s a Purple Heart Meadow Statue. There’s a statue of Salvatore that greets visitors at the entrance.
There’s even a mausoleum where Salvatore will one day be entombed.
He may describe the party in simple terms, but Salvatore doesn’t do things simply. His birthday party was grandiose in scale and long in planning.
As his party was being planned over the past several weeks, Salvatore has been wrestling – unconventionally but successfully – with a challenge. Two months ago, he underwent a full replacement of his right knee.
That surgery should have resulted in intensive rehabilitation. But after a few days of recovery at Erie County Medical Center, Salvatore went home. (He lives in a suite in his own hotel.)
Instead of rehab — “It was too boring,” he said — he went back to work.
Salvatore greeted guests at his steakhouse every night, as he’s done seven days a week for decades. He stuck to his stool more and walked from table to table less, until his knee started to heal.
Work became his rehab.
“I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do,” he said. “I kept working – Valentine’s Day – pained like a son of a gun – but I did a lot of walking and a lot of ice.”
And now he’s back nearly to full speed. Full 83rd birthday party, Vegas-style, speed.