The Miniacis and the Mafiosi

Depictions of the next monument to beach redevelopment are filed away in the city's planning and zoning department, but the towering resort, which resembles a giant staircase, doesn't actually exist yet.

The city commission recently took it a step closer to reality when they approved it, by a four to one vote, as the next addition to the skyline of the Fort Lauderdale Strip.

It is a ritzy, 26-story tourist destination combining one of the biggest names in the world of hotels -- Hilton -- with the family that for decades has been named among the city's landed gentry: the Miniacis.

The Miniaci-Grand Hilton Hotel project will be the next big move in remaking the Fort Lauderdale beach area. Albert Miniaci, the millionaire sultan of the Strip and leading beach redevelopment guru, deems it the beach's first "world-class resort." But the 252-foot-high mammoth hotel is only phase one. The family has another plot of ground a bit further north where Albert Miniaci's famous Candy Store bar used to be.

On that vacant lot is expected to stand yet another major project, a 15-story, BeachPlace-style hotel. Despite their plans for the Grand Hilton, the Miniacis have no ambition to build on this lot. Instead they're expected to sell their land to a developer. Right now the name Marriott is attached to the plan.

The Miniacis are old hands on the Strip, but they are new to the megamillion-dollar realm of towering beacons for upper-class tourists.

Under the leadership of Albert Miniaci, the family has owned landmark bars and arcades on the Strip for nearly three decades. During the spring break heyday of the early '80s, the Miniacis thrived on the influx of reveling college boys and girls. When the city cracked down on spring break partying, Miniaci complained that "the biggest sin the kids are committing is having a good time, and they're punishing them for it."

He soon opted to seize the future rather than mourn the past. Miniaci joined beach advisory boards and helped form partnerships with other beach property owners in order to lure developers. He was instrumental in pushing the city's hand in redevelopment, and the commission pumped $26 million into improvements. It worked. With widened sidewalks and a new sea wall, beach revitalization was more than just a political catch phrase. It was a reality.

Miniaci did his part by opening Evangeline and Mistral restaurants just north of Las Olas Boulevard. The classy establishments with sidewalk dining drew upscale patrons, and the Miniacis were justly credited with leading the beach renaissance.

It has all led up to the Miniaci family's dream -- the Grand Hilton project, which is slated to be erected where the restaurants now stand.

Fort Lauderdale development attorney Ron Mastriana, who represents both the Grand Hilton and Marriott projects, says, "If you had to say that one person helped to spur on the kind of beach we have right now, it's probably Albert."

But Albert Miniaci does more than plan the future of the beach. He's a community booster who hobnobs with business titans like Wayne Huizenga and sports celebrities like Don Shula. A pillar of the Broward County Boys and Girls Club, he serves on its corporate board. The Special Olympics counts him as a valued volunteer. He sits on the board of the Ann Storck Center, a group home for the disabled. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice recently named him Volunteer of the Year.

Shoulder to shoulder with him in community building is his partner in business and development, younger brother Dominick Miniaci, who is also a well-established immigration lawyer and corporate secretary.

Attorney Dominick Miniaci has also distinguished himself with charitable acts. He was once named Humanitarian of the Year by an organization in California for raising $75,000 for AIDS research. He's also served as a director of the Broward County Crime Commission, which works with and advises law enforcement agencies to help make the streets safer.

But on May 20, 1997, Dominick Miniaci wasn't helping to fight crime. Instead, he was helping a convicted criminal named John Cerrella, who goes by the underworld nickname of "Sideburns."

Cerrella is a "soldier" or "made-member" of the Genovese crime family, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit (MIU), a South Florida task force made up of several local law enforcement agencies.

The New York Times reported in April that the Genovese faction of the Mob is now the most powerful of all five New York City-based Mafia families. It is believed to have more than 200 made-members and more than 1000 associates -- people who help the Mafia in its operations.

Cerrella has a notorious history in Broward County. Back in 1975 he owned a valet business with another suspected Genovese associate. Cerrella approached a Fort Lauderdale parking lot owner and demanded that the man hand over a third of his business or be killed. The parking lot owner was wearing a wire, and Cerrella was convicted on federal extortion charges. In 1977 he was featured in a Miami Herald series on organized crime in South Florida. Judge Norman Roettger sentenced Cerrella to 16 years in prison. Cerrella was paroled in 1983 but was forced back to prison, Roettger says, for breaking parole by associating with known criminals.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman