Joseph "Big Joe" Lonardo (Oct. 20, 1884 - October 13, 1927) also known as "The corn sugar Baron", was the first ever crime boss of the Cleveland crime family.
Joseph Lonardo and his brothers built their empire with help from the Porello brothers. Together with his brother they began working at the sulpher mines where they met and befriended the Porello brothers. Realising they couldn't keep up doing the hard work they decided to leave Sicily and try their luck in America. Once they arrived in Cleveland Joseph Lonardo rose up to become a successful legitimate businessman in the lower Woodland Avenue district.
Corn Sugar Baron
Lonardo became rich as a dealer in corn sugar which was used by bootleggers to make corn liquor. However, it didn't last long until "Big Joe" Lonardo got himself involved in criminal activities. Bootleg distillers would make the liquor and Lonardo would buy it back giving them a commission. He became the leader of a powerful and vicious gang and was known as "the corn sugar baron", Joseph Porrello, one of his closest friends became his lieutenant.
During Prohibition, Cleveland, like other big cities, experienced a wave of bootleg-related murders. The murders of Louis Rosen, Salvatore Vella, August Rini and several others produced the same suspects, but no indictments. Men who intervened with Lonardo's business were beaten or killed. One of those men was Nicola Gentile, who was an enemy of Lonardo's and narrowly survived a murder attempt in 1920. Several of the murders occurred at the corner of E. 25th and Woodland Ave. This intersection became known as the "bloody corner". By this time, Joe Porrello had left the employ of the Lonardos to start his own sugar wholesaling business.
With small competitors, sugar dealers and bootleggers, mysteriously dying violent deaths, the Lonardos' business flourished as they gained a near monopoly on the corn sugar business. Their main competitors were their old friends, the Porrellos. In 1926 Lonardo was at the height of his power. That year he traveled back to his native Sicily to visit his mother. During his 6 month absence he lost much of his $5,000 a week profits to the Porrellos who took advantage of his brother John Lonardo's lack of business skills.
When 'Big Joe' came back from his trip he started to negotiate with the Porello's to get back his money and territory. On 13 Oct. 1927, Joseph and his brother John Lonardo went to play cards and talk business at their local barber shop with Angelo Porello. As the Lonardo's entered the room they were gunned down by two men. Joseph Lonardo was killed with three bullets to the head while John, who was hit in the chest, managed to draw his gun and chase after the hitmen. One of the shooters turned back and struck John Lonardo with the butt of his gun several times in the head leaving him to bleed to death. One of the gunmen was believed to be Salvatore Todaro, who was himself murdered in 1929 by Joseph's son, Angelo Lonardo.