The Itoo Society
written by Randy Couri
The Itoo Society was founded on July 4, 1914, in Peoria, Illinois, by immigrants from the small village of Aytou, Lebanon. Among the first of the immigrants to arrive in the United States were three cousins. They arrived in Peoria between 1887 and 1889; they became the vanguard for all of the other families who followed over the next century and beyond.
During the summer of 1912, a young man named Rumia Sarkis Halhoul immigrated to Peoria from Aytou. He found a job working on an excursion boat on the Illinois River. One day, near Beardstown, the boat struck an object in the water; Rumia fell overboard and drowned.
On August 24, 1912, he was laid to rest; his funeral and burial were paid by his cousins in Peoria.
After the struggle to pay for his burial expenses, forty-six men, our fathers and grandfathers, founded the Itoo Reform and Progress Society, now known as the Men’s Branch of the Itoo Society. The Ladies Branch was founded on July 6, 1916.
When the United States entered World War I, fourteen of our men served in the United States Army. Lebanon suffered immensely when one-third of the Lebanese population died of starvation. Every Itooan in Peoria had family in Lebanon. After the war the Itoo Society sent them desperately-needed help. During World War II more than one hundred of our men and women served in the United States Armed Forces. At the end of World War II, members of the Itoo Society sent 30,000 pounds of flour to Aytou to feed the villagers. Our men and women served in the United States Armed Forces in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, and in times of peace.
In November of 1928, a small group of 18 to 20 Itoo women cooked a meal to serve to their friends in the Peoria community with the proceeds to help pay the mortgage on the original Itoo Hall located at the corner of McBean and McReynolds Streets. Led by Mrs. Sadie (Joe) George, Mrs. Budwea (John) Peters, Mrs. Anna (Anthony) Joseph, and Mrs. Kemla (Mike) Couri, they planned and cooked the first Itoo Supper.
In June of 1968, the first Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob was held. The specialty of the “Supper” and “Shish-Ka-Bob” has been the wonderful Lebanese food served, along with the legendary hospitality of the Itoo Society. These two annual events have become major fundraisers for the Itoo Society, and they are looked forward to by Peorians all year long.
From the beginning the Itoo Society was envisioned as an organization dedicated to charitable purposes. It has lived up to that goal by helping its members and the villagers of Aytou in times of misfortune. As for our adopted home of Peoria, the Itoo Society works closely with many local and national charities.
The Itoo Society has flourished for more than one hundred years, making ours one of the oldest Lebanese organizations in the country. The Itoo Society and her members have been a respected part of Peoria and surrounding communities by helping others and living up to the vision of the Founders . . . Our Ancestors.