METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - The co-founder and namesake of Drago's Seafood Restaurant, Drago Cvitanovich, died at 94, Saturday, surrounded by family.
"It's a difficult day but on the other hand it's a celebration day as well because in death a lot of times it becomes a celebration of your life and he has certainly lived the American dream with a New Orleans flair," said Gerry Cvitanovich, Drago's youngest son.
Cvitanovich was born in Igrane, Croatia and quickly sought a better life.
"He tried to escape communism, got caught, spent a little time in jail, escaped again, and then joined the US Army in Germany as a civilian employee. He worked in the military as a civil-military policeman in Germany for the U.S. Army, [but he] couldn't move to the United States so he settled for Canada," said Tommy Cvitanovich, Drago's oldest son.
While living in Canada, Cvitanovich visited family in New Orleans where he met his wife of 59-years, Klara, a fellow Croatian who was also visiting family. Three weeks later the couple was married and ten years after his discharge from the US Army, Cvitanovich received his US visa, his ticket to start his American dream.
"So he packs up my mom, my brother, and I, a couple suitcases, and we catch a train down to New Orleans all in a matter of a week," Tommy said.
Cvitanovich spent the next few years working with his sister in Lakeview and then spent some time with ACME Oyster House before he and Klara opened the now famous Drago's Seafood Restaurant in Fat City.
The restaurant, in business for nearly five decades, has grown to three locations. It's a success story his sons credit to his drive and his ability to work with people.
"My dad used to say you judge people by how they treat others who can do nothing for them and I saw him do it time and time after time and we really, we learned a lot from him and I think it's not a coincidence that both of us have been fortunate to be successful," Gerry said.
"Today, to tell you and what is arguably one of the top restaurants cities in the world, to have this young boy from this poor village in Croatia to have his name at the top of one of the most successful restaurants in that city, is quite a tour of duty," Tommy said.
Now his sons hope they can live up to their father's legacy, a man who went from penniless to the quintessential embodiment of the American dream.
"I learned by watching him, how he treated other people, how he treated my mom, was a great lesson and he's left big shoes for us to fill," Gerry said.
Saturday evening, the funeral arrangements for Mr. Cvitanovich were released. Visitation for relatives and friends of the family will be held Monday, Feb 6 from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home located at 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd. New Orleans, LA 70124. The visitation will resume Tuesday Feb. 7 at 10 a.m. at St. Clement of Rome Church, located at 3978 West Esplanade Ave. Metairie, LA 70002. A funeral mass will follow at 12:30 p.m. and burial will take place at Lake Lawn Park Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to: Drago's Foundation, 3232 N. Arnoult Rd. Metairie, LA 70002. Contributions will be distributed to: The Alzheimer's Foundation, Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation, Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, Sunshine Kids, Jesuit High School, Mt. Carmel Academy, Christian Brothers School and St. Clement of Rome and Catholic Charities.