Born in 1924, in the Italian village of Bellantone Calabria, Giovanni ‘John’ Arena was the second of four children to Gregorio and Pasqualina Arena. The son of a shoemaker, John spent many of his childhood days playing through the family’s 3 acres of gardens and orchards. By the time he was 9, his father left the family to seek opportunities in Australia, and John was forced to leave school and begin work. It was at this young age that John first learned his restaurant skills while working in a local trattoria. At the young age of 15, John traveled to Australia to see his father. Unfortunately, the war had just begun and Gregorio was interned, John moved in with an Italian family and was fortunate to find work at Mario’s, Melbourne’s finest restaurant. John realized there that good cooking could produce a good restaurant, but only with integrity and service could you build a solid, profitable business.
An opportunity in 1947 found him returning to Italy to study at a culinary school in Stresa Lake Maggiore. After graduation in 1949, John worked in Stockholm, Sweden, the Prince of Savoy Hotel in Milan, and then back to Mario’s in Australia where he stayed until 1957. That spring John worked his way back to Italy on a ship and spent the summer in Zurich, Switzerland before the opportunity to work on another ship came in October, this one was bound for New York. After a month in New York, John decided to board a train and travel to Canada. It was November and John arrived at Toronto’s Union Station with a cardboard suitcase and only $60.00 in his pocket. He approached many of Toronto’s top restaurants that day for a job including those at the Royal York Hotel and Westbury Hotel. It was leaving another disappointing interview at the King Edward Hotel when he noticed one staff member speaking to another in a manner not fitting for a hotel of this magnitude, he returned to the manager’s office asking him “Do you allow this sort of thing in this hotel, in front of public?” The care and concern of the question had an impression on the manager and John earned a starting position that night as a captain in their famous Oak Room. After many years of success at the hotel in various managing roles, John Arena was sought out for the position of Food and Beverage manager at Toronto’s affluent Rosedale Golf Club. He remained there from 1961 – 1963. John initiated many successful changes at the club including overhauling much of the food and beverage system to the delight of the members. One, in particular, took notice, respected businessman Brigadier Preston Gilbride who offered John the opportunity to purchase Toronto’s landmark Winston’s Restaurant, Gilbride was a majority shareholder but his current operators had put the business in jeopardy. With a purchase price of only $2 as well as assuming Winston’s large debt, John Arena gave the restaurant a renovation, a change in the cuisine, and made it a ‘business restaurant’. It was here while owning his first restaurant John achieved his greatest success. Winston’s went on to be the most awarded restaurant in North America, it served as a favorite place for Canada’s ‘Captain’s of Industry’ and was the spot to be seen for celebrities visiting Toronto. From 1964 to 1994, almost 30 years John Arena owned Winston’s, he also owned and/or managed The Old Mill Inn and Spa, Terra Cotta Inn, Panarello’s, Giannino’s, Prego’s, and many others. He also catered to Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, Roy Thompson Hall, Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario Place, Queen’s Park, many Royal visits, celebrity weddings, and the 1984 visit to Toronto by the Pope which required feeding over 400,000 attendees.
In 1987, John almost ‘single-handedly’ raised over $10 million dollars for George Brown College. $10 million from 2 governments, half from The Honourable Betty Stevenson, Minister of Education, and the other half from The Honourable John Roberts, Minister of Tourism. Plus another $5 million within the industry from John Eagan and the late Douglas Light. As a result of his involvement, on March 9th, 1989 John Arena was named a Fellow of the Ontario Hostelry Institute and awarded The Ontario Hostelry Institute 1988 Chairman’s Award for ‘Lifetime Achievements in the Foodservice & Hospitality Industry’.
John has since co-founded DiRoNA, the Distinguished Restaurants of North America organization, recognizing the finest restaurants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In 1991, John co-founded the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, a non-profit association aimed at promoting the Italian traditions and agricultural food products abroad, through the organization of training courses and promotional events. It now has locations in Brazil, China as well as Italy.
John Arena has received numerous awards and achievements including the 1982 ‘Industry Man of the Year’ as well as an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree in Hospitality Management from Johnson & Wales University in Miami, Florida.
John Arena, passed away unexpectedly, on February 11, 2023. He has was proudly married to his wife Reingard for 62 years until her passing in 2019. John and Reingard had four children, many grandchildren, and great-grandchild.