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Windy City Amusements Celebrates 45 Years in 2022

Chicago Based Windy City Amusements celebrates 45th Season
The show has evolved over its 45 year history, primarily playing festivals within a 40 mile radius of its Aurora, Illinois winter quarters.

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The Salerno Family is celebrating 45 years in the carnival business with their show: Windy City Amusements. Tony Salerno Jr., co-owner of Windy City Amusements, fondly reflects on his family's humble beginnings and the hard work and perseverance it took to build the show. After an unprecedented two years marred by a global pandemic, personal loss, and uncertainty, the Salerno family, and Windy City Amusements, maintain a strong presence in the Chicago area.

Salerno's Father, Tony Sr, started with a few games. It all began with a nickel pitch which he booked with Royal American Shows. He saw such success with the nickel pitch that he built a second one. Eventually, he added a basketball game and balloon store. By the 1970s, Tony Sr. was primarily traveling with Royal American Shows but he would also bounce around to Rod Link's show where Frank Zaitshik, now President of Wade Shows, was the concession manager. “Frank was the manager and would always give my dad a good location. He's always been a good friend to the family,” says Salerno.

Glass pitch joint from the early 1970s

Tony Sr and his family continued to work their games and ended up on Chuck Magid's show. Next, he expanded into the ride business when he bought a Tilt-A-Whirl and booked on Bucky Gas' show. As the Salernos continued to travel from show to show, they began acquiring more and more equipment along the way. “My dad met Ralph Hoffman and bought a Loop O Plane and an Octopus. We kept growing from there until we had our own show,” says Salerno.

“I remember playing St Paul, Minnesota when I was 14 years old. We didn't have anybody to drive the truck back to Chicago. I offered to do it and I drove it all the way back - I even pulled a trailer,” laughs Salerno. Pulling loads for his family's business at such a young age foreshadows the hard work Salerno and several other family members constantly put in to create a show that eventually grew to three units with a seventy ride arsenal. “Since we started out as concessionaires we had to learn the ride business ourselves,” says Salerno “It would take us all night to tear down the rides. We couldn't believe it when people would say it only took 3 hours to tear down a Tilt, but we eventually got there.”

The Quasar, one of the shows first spectacular attractions that was purchased in the 1980s.

Finding success with their small show, Tony Salerno Sr. eventually bought another Tilt-A-Whirl and a few more rides in order to create a second unit. Eventually, a third Tilt-A-Whirl was purchased signifying the creation of a third unit. “We did three carnivals a week for 30 years. It was hard work. It was a lot of work on the family; we were doing it all ourselves,” says Salerno. Windy City Amusements became one of the largest family owned carnivals in the Chicagoland area. “We didn't book anybody else in. All the equipment was family owned,” says Salerno. 

The show in the early 90s at a festival in suburban Chicago

When they first started and only had seven or eight rides, Salerno recalls hearing competitors speculating whether or not Tony Sr. and his family could make it in the business. Salerno says they used the doubt from competitors to motivate them to keep pushing and succeed. Windy City Amusements would sometimes form what Salerno referred to as the ‘phantom fourth unit.' It was a smaller unit with a few rides he would bring out to pick up extra spots around Chicago. “It's very competitive in the area. It's tough to get the jobs especially as other carnivals grew and had extra units as well. We get along personally with the other shows, but it is a competition,” says Salerno.

When Windy City Amusements continued to grow and acquire new equipment, Salerno noticed other shows would do the same. “I'd like to think we helped make the area competitive by pushing the shows to progress. The ride manufacturers loved this area because there was a lot of demand. When we upgraded rides and equipment, they started making more money,” says Salerno.

Windy City Amusements is a ‘forty miler' show meaning they can travel home at night rather than using house trailers to stay on the lot and travel from spot to spot. Originally, their employees would stay in bunkhouses but the Salerno family purchased apartment buildings instead and would transport their employees to and from the lot. “It was a better selling point for committees and we had less problems in the apartment buildings than we did with the bunkhouses,” says Salerno. It wasn't until about seven years ago that the Salerno family heard about the H-2B program. “We heard about it from another show owner at a trade show. Once we got into the program it was a Godsend,” says Salerno. He describes how hard-working and reliable his H-2B employees are and wonders how Windy City Amusements survived for 39 years without them.

While the H-2B program was Windy City's saving grace in the beginning, it has quickly become a source of stress for Salerno and his family. In order for Windy City Amusements to operate at peak performance, their H-2B employees are necessary. “It's been a struggle the last five to six years trying to find and keep American employees. Back in the day, families would be pushing their kids out of the house to come tear down and set up the carnival and then less and less people started showing up. Our H-2B workers are dependable and work hard and we need them,” says Salerno.

After drawing group ‘E' in the H-2B lottery, Salerno feels frustrated by the employee situation. “I'm wondering why this system has not been fixed. It's an ongoing problem. Why should it be done one year at a time? I never know how to prepare for my season because I don't know how much help I'm going to get,” he says. For Salerno, the lack of control over such an important part of his business, is frustrating.

Not every member of the Salerno family works in the business currently, but they all play an important role in the building and success of the show. Tony Sr. is married to Ruth Salerno and they have six kids: Virginia, Robert, Tony Jr., Mark, Debbie, and Michael. Virginia never worked in the amusement industry, Robert Salerno, his wife, Juanita, and their two children: Robert Jr. and Amanda, work in the business and own their own show, All Around Amusements.

Tony Jr. and his recently deceased wife, Karen, have three children: Christina, Tiffany, and Samantha. Tony Jr. runs the first unit of the show with his brother Mike his daughter Samantha.

Mark is married to Cheryl Salerno and they have three kids: Mark Jr., Adam, and Anne. Mark, Cheryl, Adam, and Anne run the Windy City Amusements' second unit.

Debbie married Tom Murray and have three children: Tom Jr., Melissa, and Austin. Together, they own Murray Brothers Amusements in Ohio.
Mike is married to Dawn and has four children: Nick, Anthony, Alyssa, and Addie.

In the early 80s the Salerno family built a winter quarters and maintenance facility in Aurora, IL. It's a 10 acre facility where they do all the ‘fixing' of equipment and rides. “We're a unique family business because we're able to work for six months and then fix equipment for six months,” says Salerno.

In 2002, the family met Matt Cook, founder of, and a lifelong fan of the carnival business. “We helped introduce Matt to the industry and he built our first web site. It was the first web site he designed in the industry and part of how he got his start in the business,”  Salerno recalled.

When discussing plans for the 2022 season, Salerno is apprehensive due to the current employment situation. “I believe it could be a great year as long as we get our workers. I'm trying to recruit people now,” he says.

The Windy City Amusements team has been busy repairing the equipment over the winter and enjoyed a more relaxing schedule of five days a week in the shop rather than six. “I'd love to buy some new food wagons or rides for 2023 but I don't even want to think about it until I know I'll have the proper amount of people to help operate them,” says Salerno.

“We have a lot of family in the business one way or another. Mike has young kids and some of our kids and my nieces and nephews work with us. Hopefully we can keep someone onboard to carry on with the show but it's hard to feel good about passing it down without a reliable workforce,” says Salerno.

Ultimately, the Salerno family has stuck together and worked hard to make Windy City Amusements what it is today. “We've made some good decisions and some bad decisions. But it's nice to have family to rely on when things get tough,” says Salerno.

After losing his wife in May of 2021 to acute Leukemia, Tony Jr. is relying on his family both personally and professionally to fill the void she leaves behind in the family business. “Mark's wife, Cheryl, is basically going to have to do the office job of two people. In a family business you wear many different hats. Like a good marriage — you argue and have disagreements but you still stand together at the end of the day,” says Salerno.
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