Maybe it’s the kinship that only someone who left their home country to live in another, with no family to accompany them, could share with someone else.
Stan Lecce, who left his native Italy all by himself at age 9 to come to Kenosha, knew what this experience was like. Emilia Debicka also knows what it’s like.
So when you ask Debicka if Stan Lecce was “almost” a father to her, even though they shared no blood relation, she’s quick to correct that “almost” qualifier.
“He wasn’t ‘almost,’” says Debicka, who emigrated to the United States from Poland — like Lecce, all by herself — at age 23 in 2003.
“He was my father.”
Father, grandfather, husband, friend, co-worker, boss — whatever you could be to somebody, Stan Lecce was just that. Just one conversation with his family, a text message with a friend, a memory from one of his employees, and you can tell how deeply Stan impacted those around him and how much he cared about and helped others.
Of course, most in Kenosha remember Stan Lecce for his popular neighborhood bar, Stan’s Place, located on the corner at 1510 Washington Road, across the street and just northeast from the Washington Park Velodrome. Stan was the owner/operator of Stan’s Place for 38 years.
Stan Lecce died unexpectedly after a short illness on Oct. 30, at age 75, the result of congestive heart failure, said his family, who also added that Stan just didn’t seem to be himself in the months leading up to his death.
Stan’s sudden death has been hard for the many people who were impacted so closely by his kindness, but in his wake, Stan has left an incredible trail of memories, laughs, tears, smiles and a legacy that’s as profound as a man could hope for.
“He was the best man and friend I have ever known,” says Bob Swartz, “best friends” with Stan for over 25 years.
“He would do anything for any of his friends.”
Debicka was certainly one of those Stan impacted so deeply. She once interviewed for a bartender job at Stan’s Place on a Friday and started the following Monday. She’s still there, 14 years later, because Stan treated her and all those around him so well.
Like family, in fact.
“Just caring,” Debicka answered when asked what characteristic Stan left behind the most for others. “He didn’t think twice. If someone needed help, he would be the first one.”
Says Stan’s daughter, Michelle Kozmer, the oldest of his three children: “He always wanted to help anyone and everyone.
“… He was just so giving.”
Stan Lecce would’ve been 76 years old Thursday (Feb. 16).
No changes to bar
First, let’s get one question out of the way immediately: Stan’s Place isn’t changing or going anywhere, at least for now.
Bernice Lecce, Stan’s beloved wife of 52 years, did say her husband had considered selling the bar in recent years as he got older. He was still at the bar every morning at 7:30 and in the earlier years of Stan’s Place was there almost nonstop, considering most bar owners struggle when they first open their business.
But Stan’s Place found its customer base, so Stan had long since reached a position where all his hard work had paid off.
On a recent trip to the Live Aqua Beach Resort in Cancun, Mexico — a place where Stan and Bernice vacationed frequently — Stan was supposedly celebrating the possible sale of Stan’s Place. After years of withstanding all the stress that a bar owner is subject to, he was out, according to Bernice.
But he just didn’t seem comfortable with a sale, at least not yet.
“‘Stan, whenever you’re ready, let’s do it,’” Bernice recalled telling him then in a recent interview at her and Stan’s northside home. “Everything was paid for. The bar’s paid for, the house. We have money, this, that. So I said, ‘Go ahead.’
“He almost had it sold. And we went to Mexico, and he was standing in the pool, and I said, ‘Don’t you feel good that that’s lifted off your shoulders? No more stress about the bar.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know if I’m ready.’”
So Stan didn’t sell the bar. He also never brought business home to his family, meaning they knew very little about the operations of Stan’s Place, which is the way he wanted it.
Longtime friend Frank Bindelli, of Bindelli Construction, said Stan was “a great business owner who knew how to separate business and pleasure.”
“We were never allowed in there (to Stan’s Place),” Stan’s daughter, Michelle, said. “If you walked in — because sometimes we had to go in for some reason, or we had to go in to get money from our dad — nobody could swear. If his kids were in there, it had to be top-notch, and he wanted us out of there immediately.
“We could not work there. We were not allowed in. So we did not grow up in the bar scene.”
While that line of demarcation served his family well when Stan was alive, it obviously left them in a bit of a lurch with regard to Stan’s Place when he died, since they had never been involved in its operations.
But Bernice is clear that, for now, nothing will change about Stan’s Place, except for Stan not being there.
“As long as we still can, we will keep it going,” Bernice said. “As long as we can, we will keep it.”
The family did acknowledge they’ve received inquiries about buying Stan’s Place since Stan died, and it would certainly be a logical move and one that could still happen eventually. But right now, they could not imagine anyone else owning Stan’s Place.
“We want to keep it,” Michelle said. “It’s my dad’s. This is my dad’s. I don’t want to let it go. It would kill me. It would kill us to drive by and it not be my dad’s.
“That has been all we’ve known.”
Fortunately, even with its namesake and founder gone, Stan’s Place is still run by very capable and experienced hands.
Jori Antonneau, who manages the bar, and Debicka both started at about the same time, 14 years ago, after meeting Stan while bartending at Maplecrest Country Club, where the Stan’s Place golf league was held. Stacey Masters-Costello, also a bartender, started around the same time as Antonneau and Debicka, while bartender Laura Tibble has been at Stan’s Place since April 2014.
Stan was the kind of boss whose kindness inspired his employees to stay with him.
“We were all like family,” Debicka said. “He was treating us so (well), as a business, as a friend. No, we didn’t want to go. We were very loyal.
“Even when we had options. I had, through the years, many options. Even sometimes people were offering crazy money or something. But I feel like my heart was there (at Stan’s Place). I want to be loyal to Stan and Stan’s Place.”
With all that experience behind the bar, Stan’s Place essentially runs itself, though its founder will always be missed dearly.
“Business-wise, it’s the same,” Debicka said. “Nothing changed. They’re trying to run it the same way, and it seems like it is.
“Of course, without him being there, for us — the employees or the customers — it’s not the same.”
Additionally, the Lecce family said they’ve received an outpouring of support from the community, specifically from fellow bar owners who had long been close with Stan. They singled out the Kavalauskas family as being especially quick to offer help and advice.
Stan and Rick Kavalauskas, former owner of Spanky’s Bar & Grill, go way back.
“Great guy, great friend,” Kavalauskas said of Stan.
Rick and his son, Kyle, were partners at Spanky’s, which they sold three years ago. They are now partners at Tavern on 6th.
“(They) told Michelle that (they) would do anything for us, so that made me feel good,” Bernice said of the Kavalauskas family. “And (they) step in (Stan’s Place) once in a while, come to see what’s going on.”
The Lecce family also stressed that they’re not continuing to operate Stan’s Place out of financial necessity. If it becomes too much work for the family to handle, or if things just aren’t working out, they can always look to sell it or simply close the doors, as sad as that would be.
“(Stan said), ‘If anything ever happens to me, shut it down. Close it or sell it,’” Bernice said.
“… I said, ‘If I have any problems, any stress, or if it’s not going well, it’s gone.’”
In so many ways, Stan Lecce embodied the immigrant success story that serves as the very heartbeat of America, often called the “American Dream.”
Stan was born in Cosenza, Italy, on Feb. 16, 1947, and was left to be cared for by an aunt and uncle when his mother departed Italy for Kenosha. Stan stayed in Italy with his aunt and uncle, who had three girls. So Stan was the only boy being raised in that family.
“He was spoiled,” Bernice said.
But Stan’s life was changed irrevocably at age 9 when his mother, Anna, sent for him to come to the United States, specifically to Kenosha. Bernice said Stan was met by his mother at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, along with two sisters he had never met.
As you might imagine, the transition from Italy to Kenosha wasn’t easy for young Stan.
“(His mother) brought him home and she put him in school, and he couldn’t speak English,” Bernice said. “The kids made fun of him. The boys would chase him all the way home.”
Stan, like all immigrants to a new country, was simply forced to adapt to his surroundings.
“Finally, he’d start chasing them and beating them up, and the principal says, ‘You can’t do that,’” Bernice said. “He says, ‘Well, then tell them to get off my back.’
“Well, toward the end, they were all best friends.”
Stan actually dropped out and never graduated high school, but he got into the workforce right away and carved out a successful living.
He worked at Paielli’s Bakery and then at ARA Vending, which was next to Spanky’s. Bernice also worked at ARA, and they spent plenty of recreational time together at Spanky’s.
“Spanky’s was his home when I met him,” Bernice said with a laugh.
Stan and Bernice, whose maiden name is Carlino, were married in 1970 at Holy Rosary Catholic Church and began their life together. They had three children, Michelle, son Frank and daughter Amie, along with five grandchildren and Amie’s foster children.
Amie now has six foster children, and Stan always treated them as his own grandchildren.
“He accepted them all,” Michelle said. “We’d sneak them in. (Amie) brought home a newborn from the hospital, and she called me the next week. She’s like, ‘Michelle, I’m getting another newborn.’ I’m like, ‘Dad’s going to kill us. We can’t do this.’ She goes, ‘He won’t even know. Let’s just go over there.’
“So I carried one end (of the carseat), she carried the other, and we hid (the baby). All of a sudden, she had to lift the baby, and he looked over. He goes, ‘What are you doing!’ She goes, ‘Nothing. I’m just babysitting.’ He’s like, ‘Bull.’”
All along the way, Stan’s life was marked by hard work, as he and Bernice scrapped out a living to make life comfortable for their three children, like any working-class family.
“He never told us kids, ‘No,’” Michelle recalled. “We’ve never heard the word no from my dad. And I’m not kidding.
“My dad, from (when the kids were) little on, even when they would struggle working at ARA, we were never told no. He always found a way to give us (what we wanted).”
Then, when the kids had gotten older, Stan decided to purchase his bar and opened Stan’s Place. It was a big financial risk for the family, obviously, and nothing was easy for Stan when he started.
“It was a struggle,” Bernice said. “I was working. We had three kids in school, and I’d say, ‘Stan, I need more money than this.’ He’d give me 100 dollars. I’d say, ‘What’s this?’
“But, I’m telling you, he just kept building it up. He’d come home and say, ‘Every bar is packed. Why can’t I be packed?’ I’d say, ‘It takes time. It takes time. Just keep pushing.’”
Bernice said in the early days, Stan’s Place had its “shot-and-a-beer” clientele that kept the bar afloat. Eventually, though, its popularity began to grow and it started drawing a loyal crowd of patrons who enjoyed the atmosphere, the music, the food — that alone is a big draw to Stan’s Place these days — and the general ambiance of what could be perfectly described as a “neighborhood bar,” a la “Cheers.”
Generally, there have never been any major problems at Stan’s Place over the years. Stan knew pretty much all the Kenosha Police officers, and the atmosphere is always friendly.
“There’s no trouble there,” Michelle said.
Added Debicka: “It’s nice and safe. That was, for me, important, the safety. For 14 years, I never had a problem.”
Stan even expanded his business interests at one time, opening One Night Stan’s — a nice play on words — and partnering to open Mariah’s, which was named after his granddaughter.
Bernice said she knew well enough to just roll her eyes and stay out of it when Stan got wrapped up in his business.
“It was too much,” Bernice said. “I said, ‘You’re nuts. You’ve got enough with one.’”
Eventually, One Night Stan’s closed and Stan dropped out of his ownership stake in Mariah’s, which remains open at 2724 Roosevelt Road.
Regardless, Stan’s Place just kept rolling, and Stan and Bernice moved into a big, beautiful home seven years ago.
Stan’s success in business was truly amazing, but Bernice is quick to remind that it didn’t come from any type of head start. She said Stan only went back to Italy one time, to visit his uncle, and never met his biological father.
Quite literally, Stan came to America and built himself into a success story from nothing.
“He never got a dime,” Bernice said. “He did this on his own.”
Family, friends, fun
The stories of Stan’s generosity and how he made those around him laugh and smile are too numerous to tell entirely, though you could probably stop by Stan’s Place and hear them for hours over food and drinks if you’d like.
That would be the case during Green Bay Packers games, for which Stan’s Place is usually packed.
“He was a huge Packers fan,” Michelle said.
Also, Stan loved to dance. Especially to Michael Jackson songs.
“He was a dancer,” Bernice said. “That was his trademark. Dancing at home with the little ones, at the bar. Wherever we went, he loved to dance.”
Stan was definitely not shy about mingling with his customers. He had a special chair positioned at the big, round table near the back door, known as Table No. 1, where he’d hold court. Anyone who’s been in Stan’s Place knows exactly which table that is.
Indeed, Stan operated his bar with a “work-hard, play-hard” mentality.
“Every weekend, on Friday or Saturday, we would play music on the jukebox,” Debicka said. “We were dancing. He was playing Michael Jackson. It was so much fun.
“We did bowling once a year, usually, or a Kingfish game. It was so much fun, always. Or bicycle rides. He was on the scooter, and we were on bicycles. We had so much fun.”
If Stan’s Place was Stan’s homebase in Kenosha, then it was the Live Aqua Resort in Cancun that was his home away from home. Stan and Bernice went there often — they were actually scheduled to go the Tuesday after Stan died — and everyone there knew and loved Stan, be it the waiters, bartenders, limo drivers or kitchen staff.
He tipped everyone, including the people in the back who usually don’t see tips from tourists.
“I’m telling you, he was so good to those people,” Bernice said.
There was only one place at Live Aqua that Stan didn’t seem to care for, and that was the “quiet” pool. He and Bernice would try to spend time there, but Stan couldn’t tolerate it. He needed to be around people.
“He’d always tell them, ‘Turn up the music,’” Bernice said.
“He had to be the life of the party,” Michelle added. “He needs life.”
Several years ago, Stan even shut down Stan’s Place completely and paid for his entire staff to take a trip to Mexico. He had been planning on doing that again soon before he died.
Stan’s family often didn’t even know about all of his generosity, or about all the money he simply handed over to help others. But that’s just the way he was, so there was no use trying to talk him out of it.
“He paid for funerals, a few of them I know,” Bernice said. “And he got people out of foreclosure. Not that I’m bragging, but it’s just that he wanted to.
“And I never said a word.”
That’s also probably because, first and foremost, Stan’s love and generosity were always directed to his family.
“If there was trouble in the family, he’d fix it,” Bernice said.
Loved by employees, friends
Stan’s giving spirit extended to his Stan’s Place employees, who were essentially his family. Aside from his immediate family, Stan’s humanity and generosity probably touched his bartenders more than anyone.
Antonneau lives in Illinois and said she had some reservations about making the 40-minute drive to manage Stan’s Place. But she’s still managing the bar more than 14 years later.
“I get asked all the time why I drive so far to work here,” Antonneau said. “And my answer has always been because of Stan Lecce and the amazing person he was. He made me feel like family from the first day. Always greeted me with a hug and a kiss.
“Stan genuinely cared about his employees, and he took such great care of all of us. I hope he’s proud of how hard we are all working to keep Stan’s Place running smoothly, even though it will never be the same without him.”
Masters-Costello, meanwhile, brought some levity to the remembrances of Stan by thanking him for being a lenient boss.
“I am so thankful for his understanding and forgiveness for my tardiness most of my shifts!” she said. “Stan was a godsend to not only me, but everyone.”
That was certainly true for Tibble, who said she had never bartended prior to working at Stan’s Place, a fact Stan liked to tease her about. Tibble said her ability to shoot Stan a quick comeback allowed them to bond immediately. It was while working on some slow Sunday night shifts that Tibble and Stan found themselves “sitting at the ‘circle table’ talking about life.”
“He always wanted to know what was going on in my life, even though it usually ended with, ‘You’re a great person, stop worrying so much,’” Tibble recalled. “His advice was always just what I needed to hear at that moment.
“Looking back now, those one-on-one talks are something I miss more than anything these days.”
Stan’s role as a father figure extended to many people, especially Felix Navarro, who started cooking food at Stan’s Place when he was only about 14 years old in 2010. He worked there until 2021 and formed a special bond with Stan that was like father and son.
Navarro said what he’ll miss most about Stan is his big hugs.
“I think about him every day, and every day I smile knowing he’s sitting at the ‘round table’ with others we’ve lost,” Navarro said.
“… The thing I will miss most is his hugs. If you were ever able to get one of his signature side hugs, there’s nothing else in this world that would make you feel so safe, so happy and so appreciated. Even though I can’t go to the bar in the morning and have those talks anymore with him, I just want him to know that I love him and thank him for making me the man I am today.”
Stan’s love and generosity were just as strong for his many friends.
“Stan got me through the rough times when I lost my wife in 2018,” Swartz said. “I don’t think I could have gotten through it without him.”
Bindelli said he used to stop into Stan’s Place early in the morning on his way to work just to say hi to Stan. Bindelli knew Stan would be there at the crack of dawn, making sure everything was in order.
“Those were some of my favorite conversations with him,” Bindelli said. “He reminded me so much of my dad and took care of me like I was his own family. Whether we were at the bar or traveling, people would always come up to talk to Stan.”
And Stan had a sense of humor, too.
“He always told me, ‘Don’t make eye contact,’ because I was the one that attracted the strangers,” Bindelli joked. “He also told me to grow a beard to distract people from my big Italian nose. The day he passed away, I grew a goatee in memory of him.
“There was no filter, he always said it like it was. He was a first-class act who will never be forgotten.”
Added Dr. Jeff Thomas, an optometrist in Kenosha and longtime friend of Stan: “He was always there if you needed someone to talk to or needed help in any way.
“We spent many nights playing pool over the years (and) solved the world problems, as Stan would never hold back with his opinions. He will be missed by many.”
Bubba Karnes, who knew Stan for about 30 years, recalled the difficult early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when everything was closed and the world came to a standstill. He said he spent a couple hours with Stan every day during the first year of the pandemic, as they would get together at Stan’s Place and various locations, sometimes with others, just to share some friendship and pass the time.
“He was a great, caring and generous man,” Karnes said. “To me, he was like a big brother I never had. I miss him. I miss him every day.”
For Debicka, her bond with Stan ran so deep in large part because of their shared immigrant story.
“Maybe that’s why he always felt a little bit different about me, because he was from Italy,” Debicka said. “He was always saying that he knows how hard it is.”
Debicka said Stan was always her biggest supporter through her life’s trials and tribulations. He would enlist people with trucks to help her move, was as overjoyed as she was when she got her papers to become a permanent U.S. resident in 2020 and was the first one to call and check on how she was doing when she traveled with her young son, Harrison, to Poland this past August for her first visit there since coming to the U.S.
“He was always looking after me like a father,” Debicka said. “He knew I had no one here. I was on my own. So he was always looking after me. Always.”
They were so close, in fact, that Stan walked Debicka down the aisle for her first marriage. He was planning to do the same for her later this year when she marries Matt Braun, with whom she’s now engaged and has been with since 2017. They had known each other for years from — where else? — Stan’s Place, where Braun had often come while Debicka was bartending.
Braun and Debicka even have a “Stan’s Place baby,” as Harrison was born almost 22 months ago. Stan’s youngest daughter, Amie, is Harrison’s godmother.
“I have Harrison because of Stan’s Place,” Debicka said.
Which means Harrison was essentially another of Stan’s grandchildren.
“Stan took him on his lap, and he would sit for a few minutes with him,” Debicka said. “That was his ‘Papa.’ Harrison doesn’t have grandpas, only one grandma. So that was his ‘Papa’ for him.
“And he loved seeing him. Right away, he’d run to him and sit on his lap.”
And, of course, that was the same with all his grandchildren.
“He was the best ‘Papa,’” Michelle said. “The grandkids couldn’t ask for a better ‘Papa.’”
Debicka also said the thing she admired most about Stan was how lovingly he talked about Bernice, his wife of over five decades.
“The way that he would talk about his wife, I always was saying that I wanted my future husband to talk about us (like that),” Debicka said. “Never, ever, did I hear a bad thing.
“I’m sure they had moments, too, little fights and stuff. But he talked with so much love, always, about her. He had, like, tears in his eyes always. So I know that was so special.”
Bernice was also the perfect complement to Stan and, according to Debicka, has the strength to keep the family going forward after his sudden death.
“She’s strong,” Debicka said. “Of course, she’s heartbroken, but she’s a strong lady. She keeps the family together, for sure.
“She’s such a sweet lady. The nicest lady ever. I always asked what she would do (about) something, because I know that it would be something positive. That’s the kind of person she is.”
Added Swartz: “(Stan’s) family is truly the best, and Bernice, I love her to death.”
Stan’s funeral, held at Proko Funeral Home, was a testament to how many people he touched. Bernice said about 1,000 people turned up for a funeral that lasted three hours.
“There were so many people,” Bernice said. “Half of them I didn’t know.”
Always in their hearts
Now, after all the tears, hugs, laughs and memories have been shared among family, friends and employees since Stan’s death — and will continue to be shared in perpetuity — those left behind have no choice but to pick up the pieces and carry on.
That’s always the hard part, knowing he’s not there anymore, that you won’t see his signature red pickup truck pulling into the Stan’s Place parking lot in the early-morning hours to make sure everything is OK.
“He was always there for me,” Debicka said. “He was the first person who I called, good or bad, if I had something good to tell him, or bad. He was crying with me, laughing with me. He went through it all with me.
“I miss that. I miss texting him or calling him.”
“I am honored to have been one of Stan’s closest friends, and I miss him dearly every day,” Swartz said.
Added Masters-Costello: “His legacy will live on in all the lives he touched, the inspiration he gave and his passion for helping others. He simply had a heart of gold and will never be forgotten.
“I am so grateful and blessed that I was a part of his life, and he was a part of mine.”
More than one person, in fact, used a pretty lofty adjective to sum up Stan’s legacy and what he meant to Kenosha.
“He was a legend,” Karnes said.
Said Tibble: “Stan was truly the most selfless person I have ever met in my life. I’m lucky to have as many memories as I do with him.
“He’s one-of-a-kind, a true legend.”
And to many, a hero.
“I hope one day when I see him again, he can hug me and tell me he’s proud of me,” Navarro said. “And down here, I’ll make sure he’ll never be forgotten.
“I will tell stories till the end of my time, and I will never let my hero go.”