BUFFALO, NY ( WKBW ) A group of family and friends gathered at the legendary Chef's Restaurant Sunday afternoon to honor the late owner Louis J. Billittier... with a special surprise for the family.
Considering the element of surprise, it was fitting that part of the presentation had a link to the surprise storm that hit WNY in October of 2006.
After that weather event, "Carvings For A Cause" was formed to take damaged trees and carve them into iconic statues- raising money to plant new trees in Western New York.
On Sunday, carving #39 was unveiled to honor Lou.
While Louis J. Billittier Foundation organizers Michael Muscarella, Chris Aronica, and Annette Aquila worked to raise money for the carving, the real challenge was keeping it a surprise for the family.
Lou's wife Ann, son Louis Billittier, daughter Mary Beth Billittier, granddaughters Ashley Billittier, Jade Di Sciullo, and grandson Michael Sargente gathered to witness the unveiling of the carving with family and friends.
Lou Jr. commented, "I don't know what to say. It's such an honor that people thought of this for my Dad. We just hope that we can live up to his legacy."
Daughter Mary Beth told Eyewitness News, "I hope that we can live up to the legacy that my Father left us. He will never be forgotten."
"He can never be forgotten. He was irreplaceable, and I thank you, thank everybody," an emotional Ann Billittier said.
Lou was the son of a Sicilian immigrant, who rose to the status of local legend in his rise from dishwasher, to busboy, then waiter - manager - and eventually owner of the legendary Chef's Restaurant in Buffalo.
The Italian restaurant has been at 291 Seneca on the corner of Seneca and Chicago Streets for over 75 years and has recently undergone a major renovation.
For over 50 years, Lou presided over the "pots and patrons" serving the likes of Presidents, sports stars, music legends, and everyday people from Western New York.
While his rise to success in the restaurant business is impressive, Lou's true love, passion, and legacy was in devoting himself to helping the mentally ill, the physically challenged, and most importantly, children. Louis J. Billittier donated countless hours of time and resources to scores of community organizations.
The culture of caring has been passed down to his daughter Mary Beth and son Louis Billittier, Jr. with wife Ann. The Louis J. Billittier Foundation was organized shortly after Lou's death in August of 2000, and continues in Lou's honor to raise money for worthy organizations.
Each carving is created from trees lost in the unprecedented snow and ice storm that hit Western New York on October 12, 2006. The storm damage to trees in the community was catastrophic, with an estimated 1 in 5 trees suffering major damage. Over 40,000 were taken down.
The commemorative carvings are cut by Rick Pratt, and are generally 8 to 11 feet tall, weighing over 2,000 pounds.
"Carvings For A Cause" is administered by Therese Forton-Barnes who was in attendance with volunteer Frank Crowe for the presentation.