Ignazio Panebianco hasn’t let four brain tumors get him down.
In fact, the Westmont man and his wife, the former Ivana Salvatore, believe the illness is a blessing more than a curse.
“The tumors have actually been our gift,” Ivana said. “Without that, we would not have lived the way we have the last years.
“We have truly lived our lives fully. We feel so blessed for what we have.”
Her husband agreed.
”Every day is beautiful,” he said.
The couple have been married for 21 years and have four children.
They met in the town square in Malvagna, Sicily. She was there on a summer vacation. He was a resident.
“We were both strolling,” Ivana said.
Although she was beautiful, Ignazio said it was what was on the inside that attracted him to his future wife.
“Her heart is very open,” he said.
Eventually, he made his move, slipping her a note that said, “I love you.”
But the young suitor didn’t get an immediate response.
“It took her three days,” he recalled.
Courtship was complicated. She came back to Johnstown and he remained in Italy. For three years, they corresponded with letters, photos and occasional visits.
The wedding took place in Italy and had 50 guests from Johnstown.
The Salvatores had moved here when Ivana was 3 years old, but were originally from Malvagna and still had many relatives in the town.
The newlyweds spent a few years in Italy but decided to move to Johnstown to give their future children the same opportunities their mother enjoyed.
It was tough for Ignazio at first. He did not know English and couldn’t communicate with his new neighbors.
Although he holds a master’s degree in music and plays trombone, he knew music alone would not be enough to support his family.
“Starving musician. That’s what we would have been,” his wife said with a laugh.
So Ignazio took a job at a restaurant in Indiana, where his interaction with customers taught him how to speak the language of his adopted country.
After a few years, a friend convinced him he could run a restaurant of his own.
He was no chef, but he could cook the “everyday meals” his family had enjoyed back in Italy.
So 15 years ago, he opened Numero Uno in the Westwood Plaza.
With its authentic cuisine, the restaurant has been a hit with customers ever since.
“I follow my mom’s (recipes),” Ignazio said. “I call her all the time. I do things exactly like we do back home.”
He is a deeply religious man, and the restaurant is closed on Sundays.
“A beautiful family day,” Ignazio calls it. “We go to church.”
The Panebiancos first learned Ignazio had a brain tumor nearly 10 years ago.
“We were devastated when we found out,” Ivana said.
Three surgeries have removed tumors and now chemotherapy keeps the disease at bay.
But the couple believe a positive attitude and faith in God make all the difference.
“I totally think Ignazio is still here because of the prayers,” Ivana said.
“A lot of people would be gone by this time,” her husband agreed.
Ivana said her husband always has a smile on his face and never gets upset.
“I am happy. No complaints for this,” Ignazio said. “I pray for people who need it.
“I’m fine for me.”
After one of his surgeries, Ignazio started doing pencil drawings and today is a self-taught and talented artist. His work hangs around the dining room of his restaurant.
Ivana, who operates Salvatore’s Hairstyling in Westmont, said her husband is her inspiration.
“Half of his brain is cut out and he is still functioning. He has never given up faith or his will to live.”
Surrendering is not in Ignazio’s vocabulary.
“I never give up,” he said. “No. No. No.”
He lives for his children and family and for his God.
“I love to serve our Lord every day,” he said.
Ivana believes her husband is alive for a reason.
“Each time that we think it’s over, there God is, giving us another miracle.”
The Panebiancos love to visit Italy as often as possible and are planning another visit for this summer.
“We love it there,” Ivana said. “We enjoy getting back to our traditions, the European way of life, which is slower than here.”
But they consider Johnstown their home.
“We are so grateful to have been able to live here,” Ivana said. “Johnstown has opened its heart to us.”
And the family has opened its heart to Johnstown.
“My husband gets thank-you cards all the time from people he doesn’t even remember,” Ivana said.
“He touches everyone he meets.”
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