For Torontonians of a certain age, the name Johnny Lombardi is as iconic as Sam the Record Man or Honest Ed. But for more recent arrivals to the city or tourists who don’t know his backstory, the grinning statue of Lombardi sitting on a garden bench at College and Grace can seem a little mysterious. Other than a placard thanking sponsors for the erection of this statue and a quotation etched into the stone, there’s nothing that actually explains the deep significance Lombardi holds for the neighbourhood and city. That’ll finally change this Friday (at 7 p.m.) when a Heritage Toronto plaque honouring Toronto’s pioneer promoter of cultural diversity is added to Piazza Johnny Lombardi.
Born to immigrant parents and raised in the tenement slums of the Ward district, Johnny Lombardi studied music and played in numerous big bands until the outbreak of Second World War sent him overseas. Upon his return in 1946, he operated a grocery store that prospered by importing Italian specialty foods to cater to the city’s rapidly expanding immigrant community. In addition, he hosted Italian-language radio shows on CHUM and CKFH, and organized community events and concerts that brought the leading Italian singers to Canada. Lombardi’s impact, however, was never limited to a single immigrant community.
In 1966, he launched CHIN Radio, the first full-time multilingual radio station in Canada. From modest origins in offices above Lombardi’s College Street supermarket, CHIN soon expanded into television in 1970, and now broadcasts radio programming in thirty languages. His greatest legacy is probably the CHIN International Picnic—established in 1966—which now draws more than 250,000 picnickers. This year, the three-day festival takes place at the Exhibition Grounds on the Canada Day long weekend, and will feature participation from Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, Polish, and South Asian performers.
Lombardi’s advocacy and encouragement of cultural diversity started long before multiculturalism became government policy anywhere. Like Honest Ed, whose store made city life affordable for generations of new immigrants, the Italian-Canadian impresario was a beloved icon to countless new Torontonians. As city councillor Joe Pantalone has aptly said: “It’s hard to imagine what Toronto would be without Johnny Lombardi.”
Photo by Kevin Plummer.