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RACINE — Mario Passarelli doesn’t disparage the comparisons to “Cheers” in his restaurant, Mario’s Italian Sports Bar & Restaurant, 2300 Lathrop Ave. At 4:30 p.m. Friday, nearly every single seat at the bar and several tables were filled with patrons, and Passarelli actually does know all of their names.

Jesse Carbajal, who lives in the neighborhood, comes every Friday.

“It’s like family,” he said, mentioning that he does appreciate being greeted by name whenever he walks in.

Mike Povkovich has been drinking at the bar at least weekly for more than 30 years, long before Passarelli took over the place 14 years ago and renamed it Mario’s nine years ago.

“Look how much money he spends on Christmas!” Povkovich said, pointing out the decorations inside and outside the restaurant. “This place is just phenomenal. Everyone should come here.”

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Kristi Mueller, Kim Nelson and Wendy Smaniotto stopped by on Friday for Long Island iced teas. They asked to have their picture taken with Povkovich, but he declined.

There are also multigenerational friends Nick Riegelman, who is in his 30s, and Tom Benko and Bob Weber, who are about twice Riegelman’s age.

“A nice place, no trouble. And they have free popcorn,” Weber said.

“No riff raff,” Riegelman jumped in.

“It’s a good place for any age,” Benko added.

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A holiday episode

At the start of the month, Passarelli — along with his sister, Virginia Jacob, and the Mario’s staff — redecorated the inside and outside of the watering hole, a visible representation of Christmas cheer.

“It’s a group effort,” Jacob said.

Light-up snowmen, reindeer and a Santa Claus figurine populate the lawn facing Lathrop Avenue. A shining wreath is hung near the door. Inside, a brightly lit Christmas tree sits in the corner, and lights and tinsel are strung over the bar. A snowy scene, complete with a polar bear in a scarf and a miniature Santa, is organized below a window.

“I’ve always enjoyed Christmas and it makes a happier atmosphere,” Passarelli said, speaking to why Mario’s goes all-out every year.

The decorations are a boost to business, too. Passarelli said that December was already his best month of the year, and patrons consistently take pictures in front of the tree and share them on social media, leading to free publicity for Mario’s.

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“I wanted to do it. It was my choice,” Passarelli explained.

The decorations went up without any thought for their business appeal. He just likes Christmas.

Jacob admits that the tree at Mario’s looks even better than the one she has at home.

“It’s just nicer. Mine at home is more sentimental,” she said.

Mario’s will be open every day through Christmas Eve, but will be closed on Dec. 25.

“If I don’t want to work,” Passarelli said, “I can’t expect my employees to.”

“Look how much money he spends on Christmas! This place is just phenomenal. Everyone should come here.” Mike Povkovich, Mario’s regular

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Adam Rogan (SCHS '14, Drake U. '17) has been covering homelessness, arts & culture and just about everything else for the JT since March 2018. He enjoys mid-afternoon naps, loud music played quietly and social media followers @Could_Be_Rogan

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