PORTLAND – John “Sonny” Severino was somewhat of an iconic person.

For nearly 50 years, he ran the former Sportsman’s Grill on Congress Street, a popular restaurant where people from all walks of life gathered to watch sports. It was the place to go after events at the Portland Expo Center, and before the annual Portland and Deering high school football game on Thanksgiving Day.

Mr. Severino, who died on Friday at age 80, ran the restaurant with brothers Jim and Tony from 1952 to 1986, when he took over the business with his oldest son, Paul Severino. They operated the restaurant until 1999.

“It was so great to work with my father,” his son said. “I certainly learned a tremendous amount from him.”

Mr. Severino was described by his children on Saturday as a warm and generous guy who befriended everyone.

“If he knew someone who didn’t have anywhere to go for the holidays, he invited them to eat Christmas dinner with us,” Paul Severino said.

At one time, he also donated a thoroughbred racehorse to the Portland Police Department for patrols on horseback, his son said.

Mr. Severino graduated from Portland High School in 1948 and served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1952. He dabbled in the sport of boxing in the service, and earned Golden Gloves as an amateur boxer in Portland. Later, he became involved in training and promoting local bouts.

He was married to Tina Severino for 52 years. She emigrated from Italy in 1954 and the couple met on a blind date. They raised four children and enjoyed hosting family gatherings, especially at the family camp at Sebago Lake.

His daughter, Elizabeth Merrill of Portland, described the Severinos as a traditional Italian family. She said he always took Sundays off to spend at the camp.

“It was our big family day,” his daughter said. “That was his getaway.”

Paul Severino remembered his father being at all of the kids’ sports games.

“We all played sports. He never missed a game, even the games out of town,” he said.

Mr. Severino had a passion for horse racing, and owned some thoroughbreds with his brothers and children. He was a fixture at Scarbrough Downs and was well liked by its patrons.

Stephen Cobbett, director of operations at the racetrack, said Mr. Severino visited the track about twice a week and sat at his regular table in the lower club.

“We are deeply saddened by Sonny’s passing,” Cobbett said. “He was someone we looked forward to seeing. Everyone knew Sonny. We are experiencing his loss just like his family. That table where he sat will now be empty.”

In the past few years, Mr. Severino fought serious illnesses. Three years ago, he developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, which left him paralyzed for months. With therapy, he eventually regained his strength and ability to walk.

Merrill said her father had a strong will to live.

“His ability to defy the odds amazed his doctors,” she said. “Even when we knew he couldn’t survive, he believed he could, and never gave up.”

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

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