Diversity increasing in Janesville businesses

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, November 4, 2013

JANESVILLE--Edmund Halabi dreamed of starting a restaurant more than 25 years ago.

While passing through Janesville in 1987, he stopped to fill his car with gas on Milton Avenue.

By chance, he glanced across the street and saw a building for rent.

The young man, who had come to the United States from West Africa a few years earlier, knew nothing about the city.

He had a college degree to be a medical lab technician, but he could not see himself looking through a microscope for 30 years.

While going to school, he had worked in Italian restaurants and enjoyed cooking ravioli and manicotti.

With youthful energy, Halabi took a leap of faith.

“I went to my uncle George and asked for a loan to start a restaurant,” he recalls. “Uncle George told me I was crazy.”

Halabi didn't know it then, but as a 24-year-old of Lebanese descent, he was bringing diversity to Janesville, a community of largely Norwegian, German and Irish descent.

“Back in those days, you barely saw any Hispanics or African-Americans,” he recalls.

For more than a year, he and his wife, Karen, slept in their restaurant before they could afford an apartment.

Halabi didn't care.

“I was the most excited person on the planet,” he recalls.

More than 25 years later, the Italian House, now at 1603 E. Racine Street, is a popular eating place and still growing. Halabi recently added a large banquet room.

Diversity among Janesville business owners also is expanding and will be on display Thursday, Nov. 7.

The Diversity Action Team of Rock County is hosting a panel of seven Rock County business owners, who will share their experiences.

In addition to Halabi, they are:

-- Anita Carrel and Kerry Hawkins of Farmers Insurance.

-- Anita Perteete of Rose's Soul Food Restaurant of Beloit.

-- Olivia Martinez and Fred Shahlapour of Shorewest Realtors.

-- Yolanda Cargile of Chique women's boutique, Janesville.

While Halabi started his business decades ago, Cargile just opened her doors in July. She and her husband, Chauncey, sell trendy women's clothing and accessories at 21 N. Main St., Suite 100, in downtown Janesville.

“I absolutely love putting together outfits,” Cargile said. “I mix and match things to see how creative I can be.”

Cargile is director of student services in the Janesville School District. Her husband also works outside the store, which has limited hours.

“We are running the store ourselves to see if it will flourish,” Cargile said. “It takes time for community members to get to know us.”

She and her husband moved to Janesville four years ago.

Cargile, who is African-American, asks shoppers not to look at the color of the skin of the person running the business.

“Instead, look at the product that business owners are giving to the public,” she said. “Be open to supporting all businesses.”

Both she and Halabi are living their dreams.

Halabi eventually found success, in part by teaching young people about Italian food. His location near Craig High School introduced teenagers to gondolas and pasta dishes long before other Italian restaurants came to town.

“In time, they taught their parents,” he said.

Today, Halabi is deeply rooted in Janesville and cannot call anywhere else home.

“I plan to be buried here,” he said. “Who would believe me if I told them that a guy of Lebanese descent, who married a beautiful American of German descent, would be selling Italian food to the Norwegian, German and Irish community of Janesville?”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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