A Fortune 50 corporation, three well-known hospitals, three higher education institutions, and a variety of national and international companies mark the Peoria business landscape. But the backbone of the area economy is rooted in small and family-owned businesses, where no other group has contributed to the success of the local economy more than those Lebanese-Americans who immigrated to the Peoria area in the late 1880s. Anyone visiting or reading about the Peoria area cannot escape the renowned success of such Lebanese-American families with the surnames of LaHood, Maloof, Couri or Kouri, Alwan, Joseph and Williams.
The Lebanese-Americans of Peoria represent a uniquely successful immigrant group in all aspects of community development. Metropolitan Peoria is home to nearly 8,000 Lebanese-American residents, many of whom have taken leadership roles in medicine, education, the arts, law, construction, real estate, politics and business. It is worthy of special note that the Lebanese-American women of Peoria have not only played key traditional roles of family and home support, but have excelled in business and professional career roles as well.
What makes the foundation of the Peoria Lebanese-Americans so robust that they have become a primary anchor of local business success? The answer in a few simple words is: family, trust, hard work, commitment to education, entrepreneurship, leadership and love for America.
One such Lebanese family bears the surname of LaHood. Joseph LaHood, with his brothers, founded LaHood Construction Inc., and they have been involved in building houses, home energy installation, concrete foundation building and concrete distribution since the 1970s. In the 1960s, Joe LaHood’s father and uncles ran a chain of laundromats. His grandfather established an appliance business in Peoria and modeled the high ethical standards of business for the family. The LaHood family business model is based on two principles: (1) Step up to the plate and deliver good products; and (2) Keep good relationships with your customers. As Joe LaHood stated,”When you are around different LaHood families, it is known that you will be doing business.” Family businesses serve the community and are shaped by Lebanese cultural heritage, hallmarked by a devotion to hard work, according to Joe LaHood.
Henry Alwan and his wife Teresa, who was born in Brazil, serve the Peoria community with a superb specialty food and bakery business. Henry holds an electrical engineering degree from Bradley University, but was inspired by his father and grandfather—who came to Peoria in 1885—to be an entrepreneur. Henry initiated his own entry into business in Brazil, where he was a pinball game salesman. That’s also where he and Teresa met. After they arrived back in Peoria, the Alwans opened a restaurant in Pekin. It was Teresa who persuaded her husband to open the successful specialty food and bakery business in 1992. The Alwans believe their success is based on running the sort of business where they can meet and help fellow citizens every day. They love to interact with people and teach their own children the best of business ownership and management. Like his ancient Phoenician ancestors who navigated the world and traded merchandise with vast empires, Henry is a believer in commerce served with a devotion to excellence.
» History of Lebanese in Peoria
Some 6,000 Peoria-area residents trace their ancestry to the small Lebanese village of Aytou, situated on a mountaintop in northern Lebanon. The first to come was a 23-year-old named Tanous LaHood, in 1886. He left Lebanon because there was little prospect for work. He journeyed through several communities as he sought a permanent home before settling in Peoria. It took Mr. LaHood 11 years to save enough money to bring his wife and children to Peoria. One of those children would have a famous grandson—U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The trickle of immigrants that began with Tanous LaHood grew to a flood by 1907. Typically, the men and women left Aytou for economic reasons—an estimated one-third of the Lebanese population starved to death during World War I. They came to Peoria because friends and family members had settled here and because jobs—on the railroads and in the distilleries and factories—were plentiful in the early 1900s.
Most of the newly-arrived Lebanese settled into a two-block section of Washington Street with their backs to the river. By 1920, many had moved to the area around St. Patrick’s Church on Peoria’s South Side. In that small neighborhood, one could find 40 Aytou households.
By the 1920s, many of the immigrants had left their factory jobs to open grocery stores, restaurants and taverns. In the 1930s, after Prohibition ended, an estimated four to five dozen local taverns were owned by former Aytou residents and their descendants.
The Itoo Reform and Progress Society traces its origins to a 1912 tragedy: the drowning of Aytou immigrant Ray Sarkis while working on a steamboat. His cousins in Peoria—also Aytou immigrants—struggled to pay his burial expenses. When word of that tragedy reached a Maronite priest named Father Antoun Slyman, he suggested that the local Lebanese form an organization that would enable them to help each other.
On July 4, 1914, the Itoo Reform and Progress Society was formed. While the name is spelled differently from the home village, it has the same pronunciation. Itoo also was shorthand for the group of Lebanese tavern owners—the Itoo Tavern Owners Organization.
The family names represented by Itoo’s founders are familiar in Peoria: Albert, Alwan, Anthony, Couri, Farrah, Farris, George, John, Joseph, LaHood, Maroon, Michael, Moses, Peters, Rafool, Romanous, Slyman, Trad and Unes. A picture of 42 of the 46 founders hangs on the wall at the Itoo Hall on Farmington Road.
In addition to the 6,000 Peoria-area residents who can trace their lineage to Aytou, it is estimated that at least another 2,000 have ancestors from elsewhere in Lebanon. U.S. immigration quotas have slowed the flood to a trickle again.
The sizeable number of Lebanese immigrants in Peoria prompted the opening of St. Sharbel Maronite Church on Scenic Drive in Peoria in 1973. The Maronites constitute a branch of Roman Catholicism and represent the majority of Christians in Lebanon.
Randy Couri is the source for this history. He can be reached at (309) 696-5327.
Helping others is not limited to the LaHoods or Alwans in service through commerce. Dr. Christopher Couri is a believer in helping community and family. He wanted to practice medicine in Denver, but his father’s death—along with his own passion for his birthplace—kept him home, where he took over his father’s practice. Dr. Couri says he learned from his father and his Lebanese culture to be honest and straightforward with his patients and “take care of those who come to the door.” He believes that the diversity of Lebanese professions and professionals has not hindered their connection to one another, a trait based on a collectivistic attitude rooted in Lebanese culture. He points to his own practice as well as other Lebanese-American businesses in the area as being community-focused, where people are cared for as if they were family members. Dr. Couri believes that people in small businesses always try to make things better for the community, which will benefit everyone. Dr. Couri also points to the fact that Lebanese-Americans in this area tend to be strongly religious, which guides their ethical relations with others in business.
James Maloof, three-term mayor of Peoria (1985-1997) and founder of Maloof Realty, Inc., embodies the pride and interest of the Lebanese-American community in helping others. As mayor, Maloof traveled to Germany, South Korea, China and Japan to bring new businesses, trade, ideas and jobs to Peoria.
When reflecting upon his Lebanese cultural heritage, Maloof credits his mother and her Lebanese culture for inculcating caring for others in him. On her deathbed, her last words to him were, “Help children, God help you.” Maloof has given many public speeches to his favorite professionals—teachers and nurses—about bringing people together for good causes, and to other businesses about charitable giving. He believes the Lebanese-Americans of the Peoria area have made quite an impression on the community by helping others, a case in point being the elderly housing project located at St. Sharbel Village.
Maloof identifies the Lebanese value of “giving back” as what has brought honor to Lebanese-American small businesses and their families here. He is a strong promoter of the engagement of community ethnic groups in leadership positions and wants local businesses to be a part of making the community a better place to live. One of his mayoral campaign mottos was “inclusion.” He looks to the future with more small business owners of diverse cultural backgrounds becoming visible in leading the local economy in the Peoria area.
Peoria’s Lebanese-American business community is optimistic about the future of the local economy and plans to continue their engagement in community and business leadership and civic activities. For them, what makes their businesses successful and their community strong is their treatment of their employees and customers as family members. They wish only the best for everyone in the community and hope to continue to help with the delivery of quality products and services, keeping positive relationships with employees and clients, and creating a lasting trust. iBi
Ali Zohoori is a professor of communication at Bradley University and a board member of the Peoria Area World Affair Council.