Priss Arias, AJC

September 13, 2013

Parallel Universe and a Blind Date  

The exciting story of two Cuban immigrants who built their American Dream with courage and disciplined hard work.

Maria and Antonio Fundora   

Casa Nuova Italian Restaurant   Alpharetta, GA 770-475-9100

In a world that’s filled with chaos and confusion, a continual barrage of political clamoring; Antonio and Maria Fundora are not waiting for bureaucrats to give them direction on what to do with their lives. Instead, they face each morning with the same positive hope, focus and discipline that has given their family purpose and meaning since they immigrated to the Untied States from Cuba in the 1960’s.

Forty-four days before Fidel Castro declared his fifty-year blockade, refusing to allow the citizens of Cuba the right to come and go from the island, Antonio Fundora left Cuba and came to the United States.  He was a young man armed only with a 5th-grade education, a strong work ethic and the desire to be free to pursue his own goals in life.

Antonio Fundora settled in West Palm Beach, FL for a while where he began his career at the bottom of the restaurant ladder at Wolfie’s, but his heart was set on pursuing the American dream, which lead him to New York City and Long Island. There he found his true passion of baking and cooking Italian food.  He worked at Gurney’s Inn and Angelo’s on Mulberry Street in Little Italy in New York City.

Antonio rose rapidly through the apprentice system and quickly became a master baker and chef. In the early 70’s he visited Atlanta, GA while on vacation and realized he had found the place he wanted to settle down and call home.  Shortly after moving to Atlanta, he opened his first Italian restaurant, Alfredo’s.  Other restaurants followed, Avanti’s, Toni’s Casa Napoli, Antonio’s Bakery, Tony’s Farmer’s Market and Casa Nuova in Alpharetta, GA.

In 1966, another young Cuban man was contemplating similar decisions as he mingled with his customers at the Pollo Pampero Café where the famed writer, Ernest Hemmingway often stopped in to chat and enjoy the food.   It was that year that Chef Jose Llanes, his wife, Iluminada, and their only child, Maria, moved from Cuba to Chicago, Ill where Jose and Iluminada opened their own restaurant.

Twenty-one years later, in 1987, Antonio Fundora and Maria Llanes met on a blind date in Atlanta, GA.  Maria and her mother, Iluminada had moved from Chicago to Atlanta in 1984 to pursue their own careers.   At the encouragement of her mother’s coworker, Maria agreed to accept her mother’s friend’s invitation to meet Antonio Fundora on a blind date.   Who could have known then just how much these two Cuban natives would have in common or how extensively their lives would touch so many others around the world with hope, courage, inspiration and love over the next twenty-six years.

Maria is the General Manager and Antonio is the Master Chef at their restaurant Casa Nuova in Alpharetta, GA, which opened in 1998. Not only do they make a successful team in business but they share their success very generously in their community and far beyond.   Their presence in the Alpharetta and Cumming community reaches the hearts and lives of hundreds of regular patrons as they infuse encouragement and inspiration to all those who their frequent Authentic Italian restaurant.   Their many faithful patrons return again and again for the authentic Italian food and many say they come even more often for that sense of balance in faith, family and friendship that Antonio and Maria cultivate with a genuine and sincere sense of personal concern in their community.

Antonio and Maria Fundora are well known for their generous outreach to others who need to find hope and purpose in life. Antonio worked very hard, seven days a week for many years so he could bring 56 members of his family to the United States to pursue their own freedom, American dreams of hope and purpose.

After retiring from AT&T, Maria’s mother, “Mama” Milian, worked at Casa Nuova until her death in 2007, when she died from pancreatic cancer.  Maria has founded the Purple Pansies Organization in memory of beloved mother, to heighten the awareness of and to raise support for pancreatic cancer research.

In the four years since it’s inception, the organization has helped raise approximately 300k for this cause.  Purple Pansies has partnered with the JCM Foundation and TGEN Foundation, a leading research organization that is making significant progress in their search for causes and the cure of pancreatic cancer. Maria’s goal this year is to raise 100k with the help of TGEN Foundation and others. You can learn more about the Purple Pansies Organization at their website purplepansies.org.

Other organizations Tony and Maria support on a continual basis in their community and beyond are:

St. Brendan’s Church Haiti earthquake victims

Milton High School

Milton Chorale

Cambridge High School

Hopewell Middle School

Forsyth Central Marching Band

Summit Hill Elementary

Kings Ridge Christian School

GT for the Kids Dance Marathon through Children’s Miracle Network

Larry King Cardiac Foundation

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

The American Cancer Society

Jesse’s House

Dining Out for Life

An Evening of Hope

Cooperative for Education

Antonio and Maria continually offer their personal support to special needs in the community for individuals by hosting events at Casa Nuova for local fundraisers.

For more information about this extraordinary couple and their truly inspirational story, call Maria Fundora at 770-475-9100 or Priss Arias at 770-292-9009.