The criminal underworld has plenty of characters that still resonate their presence in today’s world. Since the early days of the “mustache petes” in the Italian boroughs of America’s large cities at the turn of the last century, history has given these individuals a place in the modern psyche. Whether you romanticize them or demonize them, names like Al Capone, John Gotti, Sam Giancana, and Frank Costello are ingrained into our collective culture. Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Mafia Boss Frank Balistrieri has his place as well.
Frank Balistrieri aka, “Mr. Big,” “Frankie Bal,” “Mr. Slick,” and “Mad Bomber” was born on May 27,1918. He began his career in the Milwaukee Mob at an early age and eventually married Antonina (Nina) Alioto, the daughter of Milwaukee mob boss John Alioto. Alioto then groomed Balistrieri to succeed him as Boss. When Alioto retired in 1961, Balistrieri took control of the Milwaukee operations. Frank and Antonina had four children: Joseph, John, Benedetta, and Catherine. The Balistrieri family made their home on North Shepard Avenue in Milwaukee.
Balistrieri gained his nickname “Mad Bomber” from his use of I.E.D.s (improvised explosive devices). He attached these devices to the cars of his rivals and enemies. Balistrieri could be ruthless and unforgiving; for example, he once put a “hit” out on his acquaintance “Augie” Palmisano. Balistrieri was later quoted as saying, “He called me a name – to my face – and now they can’t find his skin!” Palmisano learned the hard way that no one insulted Frank Balistrieri.
Balistrieri, among other things, controlled the loan sharking, sports betting, and vending machine operations in Milwaukee. He conducted his business using a red telephone at his table at Snug’s Restaurant in the Shorecrest Hotel at 1962 N.Prospect Ave. A Balistrieri affiliated company sold The Shorecrest Hotel in 2011. The Shorecrest is now a apartment building.
In March 1967, Balistrieri was convicted of income tax invasion and was sent to federal prison in Minnesota for two years. He was released in June 1971.
Balistrieri was a central figure in the Las Vegas casino skimming activities. In Las Vegas, on March 20, 1974, Balistrieri met with Kansas City mobsters Nick Civella and Carl DeLuna. At the meeting they agreed that Balistrieri would meet with Mob front man Allen Glick to purchase a part of Glick’s Argent Corporation, a holding company for four Nevada casinos: the Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda, and Marina. Glick would agree to sell half of the corporation’s ownership to Balistrieri’s sons, John and Joseph, for $25,000. The mobster later claimed, “…he had an obligation arising from the assistance to Glick in obtaining a pension fund commitment in the amount of 62.75 million.” He was referring to the Mafia controlled Teamster Union Pension Fund.
It wasn’t long before Balistrieri and Civella were feuding over each other’s share of the skimming operations. Finally, they requested arbitration from the Chicago Outfit, to which both the Kansas City and Milwaukee mobs owed allegiance. The arrangements handed down by The Outfit’s Boss “Joey Doves” Joseph Aiuppa and his underboss John Cerone. They demanded that The Outfit receive a 25% cut in the skimming operations. The 1982 car bombing attempt of mob associate and the Stardust Casino’s Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, in Las Vegas, was attributed to Balistrieri. Balistrieri blamed Rosenthal for his legal problems in Las Vegas. Rosenthal survived.
The car bombing scene in Martin Scorsese’s movie “Casino”, which is based on the Nicolas Pileggi book of the same name, is based on the Rosenthal car bombing attempt.
In 1977 the FBI initiated a sting operation in Milwaukee targeting Balistrieri. Special agent Joseph Pistone, who was working undercover in New York City as Donnie Brasco. Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, was sent to Milwaukee to set up a vending machine company in Balistrieri’s territory. He was hoping to either provoke Balistrieri into retaliating or working with the undercover agent. When Pistone and another FBI agent finally met with Balistrieri to create a partnership, Balistrieri laughingly admitted that he had been getting ready to murder them. Balistrieri and his two sons John and Joseph worked with Bonanno crime family capo Michael Sabella and once met Bonanno crime family soldier Benjamin “Lefty Guns” Ruggiero with undercover officer Pistone at Belistrieri’s restaurant, Snug’s.They were there to discuss a vending machine operation that was brought to Pistone’s attention by Clark B. Hall, another undercover cop working with the Milwaukee Mafia. The Bonannos, Milwaukee gangsters, and the FBI Agents reached an agreement over the vending machine rackets. Through his sons, Balistrieri made an agreement which gave him an overly favorable outcome and would give him ultimate control over the proposed arrangements. Months later, a suspicious Balistrieri cancelled the arrangements and ceased all contact with the Bonanno Family.
Balistrieri and two sons were indicted in September of 1983 with charges of skimming over $2 million in unreported income from the Stardust and the Fremont casinos. While awaiting sentencing, Balistrieri claimed his innocence and famously stated, “The first time I heard the word, ‘Mafia,’ was when I read it in the newspapers,” but it was to no avail. Frank Balistrieri was sentenced to 13 years in prison and fined $30,000 on May 30th, 1984 in Milwaukee. His sons each received a two year sentence in prison after being convicted of extortion involving a vending machine business.
Frank was tried in the Kansas City Federal Court on September 1985 for skimming approximately $2 million of the gross income of the Argent Corporation from the casino operations and distributing them among his associates in Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. Balistrieri then pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy in exchange for dropping the federal charges of attempting to conceal ownership of a casino, to skim profits, and interstate travel, to aid racketeering.
This is the first time federal authorities had successfully connected mobsters from four different states.
On December 31, 1985, in Kansas City, Missouri, Balistrieri pled guilty to conspiracy and racketeering. He was then sentenced to 10 years in federal prison which was to run concurrently with his 13-year sentence from 1984.
Frank Balistrieri was released early due to his deteriorating health on November 5, 1991. 15 months later, on February 7, 1993, Frank Balistrieri died of a heart attack at the age of 74. He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum in Milwaukee. His wake was by invitation only. Guards were posted at the door.