Fulfilling Life’s Mission Through Rock Music and Mexican Food

Dan Leonardi’s dedication to his craft as a musician is obvious when he settles in behind his drum set and begins to play. His quiet, unassuming character transforms into one of pure intensity as the rhythm pulses through every muscle in his body, animating his waving arms, his kicking legs, his bobbing head. The slightest beat of inspiration leaves him mesmerized, free styling for four to five hours at a time, with his audience of friends awestruck by his profound connection with the music he makes. His day job, however, yanks him away from this creative space and places him in front of a different kind of crowd.

Standing in the shadows of the Del Fuego Restaurant dining room where the surface of the artisanal wooden bar ends and the steaming kitchen grill begins, Dan Leonardi watches the as the typical Friday night dinner crowd fills every available seat. Two bustling waitresses hop from table to table, offering each customer a complimentary medley of red, white and blue tortilla chips with the house’s spicy garlic salsa. The bartender greets each incoming patron, announcing the evening’s eclectic beer selection available on tap. Leonardi, clad in a fresh button-down shirt, with tousled brown hair and a relaxed smile, snags a handful of menus and welcomes a newly arrived group of diners, engaging in host small talk until a table opens up for them.

Courtesy of Dan LeonardiLeonardi, 29, spends his days managing this Tex-Mex eatery and has done so since the opening in St. James, Long Island, in November 2011. The restaurant’s small space exudes a fun and vibrant energy, attracting the attention of diners from down the road as well as across the state. However, while Leonardi enjoys his role in the local dining world, he admits that his passion lies not within the food he serves but instead within the music he plays.

Anything can happen when Leonardi grabs a pair of drumsticks. Over the past 15 years, he has contributed to a variety of band projects with rock styles ranging from pop to rap to indie and everything in between. His endless hours of practice earned him the ability to adapt his skills to each band’s desired sound. Former band mate and friend Jesse Leo said, “He is a phenomenal drummer in the studio. He is like a human metronome.” Leonardi says that he has never been to a band tryout that did not end in his hiring, and he has worked on over 75 different local music projects in the past few years.

A New York native, Leonardi grew up in Flushing, Queens with his parents and older brother Dave. He reminisces fondly about his old block and his dozen friends who lived only steps from his doorway. However, this number shrank as families moved out, looking to escape the violence encroaching on the neighborhood. His parents, a New York Police Department officer and an emergency room nurse, followed suit in 1997 after one of their neighbors was shot and killed. The family moved out to Medford, Long Island when Leonardi was 13 years old.

“It was like horse country,” said Leonardi. “I started to become more of a country guy instead of a city guy.” He picked up lacrosse and horseback riding at the beginning of high school at the same time he began his love affair with music. He received his first drum set as a gift from his parents at the age of 14 and began taking lessons. He formed his first band with some friends during his freshman year; The Show Offs played several local gigs on Long Island.

His brother, who followed in their father’s footsteps and serves as a NYPD sergeant, loved growing up with Dan’s jam sessions as background noise in their home. “He was playing up to five, six hours a day,” said Dave Leonardi, attributing his addiction to hard work to his fear of failure—an outlook that the brothers share. “He was always doing a lot of work with different bands and filling in for different drummers, and then at some point, every time he filled in for somebody they wanted him to stay and take over steady point.”

After attending Stony Brook University for a semester, Leonardi jumped at the opportunity to move to Los Angeles, Calif., and record his first major track as the drummer for Diffuser, a popular Long Island rock band that signed with Hollywood Records in 2001. Three years and two international tours later, the band dissipated and Leonardi returned to New York. He picked up his first waiter job back on Long Island to pay the bills as he continued to network in the music world and hand his resume to any interested passerby. “I worked in restaurants because that is the one job you can always get when you’re in a band,” said Leonardi. “You can work for three months, leave for tour, come back six to eight months later, and go right back to it.”

Courtesy of Action Action's MySpace

Dan Leonardi (center left) in Action Action

In 2004, he joined a band named Action Action, and the group signed with Victory Records, one of the most successful indie labels at the turn of the millennium. “We did the touring thing for about five years on three different records, we did South by Southwest three or four times, we did Warped Tour three times,” said Leonardi. “We toured with bands like The Cult, Simple Plan, the All-American Rejects. It was a dream come true, playing a ton of sold-out shows every night, selling a bunch of records, just living the dream as musicians.”

However, the life of a traveling musician proved an arduous one, and Leonardi caught himself questioning his decision on several occasions. “You’re constantly touring, you’re playing shows and driving, you’re tired and hungry, you’re cold and want to shower, and you’re unhappy with that. You feel like, ‘What am I doing with my life? I’m in the middle of North Dakota and don’t have a dime to my name and don’t know what I’m doing next besides driving to Ohio,’” said Leonardi. “But it’s about the journey, not the destination. That’s living it.”

Courtesy of Dan Leonardi

Dan Leonardi drumming for Action Action

Action Action disbanded in 2009 as the lead singer struggled to cope with a pending divorce and the loss of his father to brain cancer. Despite the fact that his two most successful music projects concluded due to the lead singer’s needs, Leonardi is far from bitter. “That’s just the way it is. I’m used to the fact that I have to jump from one project to another to another. As a drummer, those are where my skills lie,” said Leonardi. “If the lead singer drops out to do different things in his life, then yeah, it kind of leaves us high and dry. But at the same time, you learn how to move on.”

During his time with Action Action, Leonardi grew close with musician Jesse Leo, the former lead guitarist for unlikelyheroes, and the duo started an electronic-based rock project known as Dead Celebrities. The two remain close friends after recording one album and completing a yearlong tour that included selling out Webster Hall in Manhattan. “He takes music to the next level,” said Leo. “He’s very creative, which is probably the most important thing in a drummer.”

In 2009 Leonardi secured a new waiter job at Ruvo, one of Del Fuego’s sister Italian restaurants located in Port Jefferson, Long Island. He worked his way up to assistant manager, and when owner Joseph DeNicola decided to expand and try his hand at Tex-Mex fare, he asked Leonardi to run the place. Proud brother Dave Leonardi said, “That in itself just goes to show the kind of person he is. Not many people start off as a waiter and end up being a manager, working a different restaurant, because the owner trusts him. He shot up right through that system, and he never did it before.”

Del Fuego Restaurant prior to its Saturday lunch rush

Del Fuego Restaurant prior to its Saturday lunch rush

And run the place Leonardi does. From handling advertising and media relations to staff training and liquor control, he keeps busy at his post on North Country Road. The position may not make use of his musical talents, but it will do for now. “It’s not something I see myself doing in 10 years, but I like it. It’s almost like an internship for me, learning how to run a business,“ said Leonardi.

Del Fuego bartender and waitress Urszula Pelka has spent the last year and a half working under Leonardi’s command. “The first time I met him, I was scared of him,” said Pelka, laughing.  “He was very serious, he knew how he wanted the restaurant to run, so he had really high expectations when he came to me.” Today, they are good friends as much as coworkers.

For 50 hours each week, the restaurant is Leonardi’s band, and he sets the tone with his underlying beat. “He sets the example. If there is something to do and nobody is able to get it done right way, he will do it,” said Pelka. “He does as much as we do.”

In addition to his full-time gig at the restaurant, Leonardi dedicates 15 hours each week to his current music projects, and the Del Fuego team is nothing but supportive—even owner DeNicola. “If anything, they tell me to pursue it more, even Joe. He wants to keep me around, but he has also given me many talks about how I should pursue music if that’s what I really want to do, because the restaurant industry is not an easy one,” said Leonardi. “He is also feeling out how dedicated I really am. He has said it many times, either pursue the music or be a part of his family forever, which is kind of scary.”

Leonardi’s brother, former band mate, and coworker all consider him to be an easygoing guy when it comes to life and intense when it comes to work, both in the restaurant and behind his drum set. His physical style suits both of his roles in the restaurant business and music industry. “When he plays shows, he always wears a nice shirt and tie,” said Leo. “I used to call him the true professional.”

Managing Del Fuego allows Leonardi to pay his bills as he dabbles in new ventures and searches for financially feasible ways to make music his full-time gig. At times it bothers him that he is not making a bigger impact on the world, not fulfilling what he feels he is destined to do. He currently drums for three different projects, each with its distinct style. “It keeps it fresh,” said Leonardi. “It’s been fun opening up my styles and my ability to play.”

Courtesy of Dan LeonardiWhile Leonardi remains unsure of what the future holds, those close to him do not hesitate to weigh in. Dave Leonardi offers the unconditional brotherly support. “I think he’s successful no matter what he does. At any moment, he could be back in the music business and be successful, or he could own his own restaurant,” he said. Music-minded Leo picks a side without hesitation. “I hope he takes it on the road, finds new projects and continues with the music, because that’s where he belongs,” said Leo. “That’s very Dan, playing music live for people.” However, until his third big break arrives and forces him to prioritize his loyalties, Leonardi can be found behind the Del Fuego bar prepping for the next evening rush.

Originally written for my food writing class

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