W. Islip's La Grange customers left in lurch

Last May, Rachel Bonfiglio, 15, of North Babylon

Last May, Rachel Bonfiglio, 15, of North Babylon booked the La Grange Inn in West Islip for her sweet 16 party. In late November, they received a letter from La Grange saying the establishment was closing for good. (Jan. 19, 2011) (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

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The historic La Grange Inn in West Islip has long held an allure for residents.

For Rachel Bonfiglio, 15, of North Babylon, the appeal came down to two things: It was "really pretty" and had a large enough dance floor for Rachel and her friends to celebrate her Sweet 16 party.

But now the La Grange won't be the site of her party because the West Islip landmark closed its doors in November with no explanation - or promise of refunds of deposits - for those, like Rachel's parents, who booked events at the catering hall and restaurant.

Her parents put down a $1,000 deposit in May and paid another $1,000 in September. They booked a DJ and spent $400 on invitations. Then Rachel came home from school one day and found the letter from La Grange's management announcing its immediate closure.

"I was really upset, I actually started crying," Rachel said. "I had been so excited."

The family booked the party elsewhere and got reprinted invitations for $150 but is reeling and wants a refund.

La Grange, which dates to the 1750s, was being leased by Dennis Garren, Scott DiDonna and David Rousso. The trio took over in 2009, promising to keep it a catering hall and restaurant after hundreds of residents opposed a proposal to have Walgreens move onto the property. La Grange had a grand reopening in April 2010 but problems soon surfaced, said one of the property's owners, Rick Olivieri, and by summer the lessees stopped paying him rent. "They said they were going to return everyone's deposit," he said. "They never told us when they were actually leaving, they just left."

When asked why they closed so suddenly, Garren, of Bellmore, said in a telephone interview, "I don't want to explain it to anybody. It was a financial situation, that's all." When asked about deposit refunds, Garren said he had no comment. His partners could not be reached for comment.

For Derek Lundquist of West Islip, the closing of La Grange changed his once warm feelings about the building - considered a community jewel by many.

"Now when I pass by, I get angry when I see it," he said. "And it shouldn't be that way."

Lundquist, 38, whose mother works for Newsday, and his wife Regina, 38, put down a $500 deposit in June for their daughter's first Communion in May. In November they received a three-line letter from La Grange stating that "due to circumstances beyond our control" La Grange will close. There was no mention of deposits or contact information. Now, Regina Lundquist said, they may have to hold a scaled-down party in their yard.

"How do you explain to your 7-year-old that we're not having a big party anymore," she said. "It's just heart-wrenching."

Vendors also are angry. Tom Lorch, owner of Black Forest Bakery in Lindenhurst, said his payments from La Grange "just kind of stopped" before the closing and he estimates he's out about $1,000.

Some deposits were returned. Sharon Burns, 49, and her fiancé Joe Bruno, 50, of Lindenhurst, received their $500 just before Christmas, but their wedding plans were derailed.

The pair, who reconnected at their 30th reunion - were both previously married but were planning their first large-scale wedding. They said they met weekly and had drinks with Garren, even practicing their first dance on La Grange's dance floor, and never got an indication from him the inn was in trouble. Now they are scrambling, hoping the American Legion in Lindenhurst might be able to host a small reception.

Linda Folise, 39, of West Babylon, was planning a preschool fundraiser and only got her money back because she put the $750 deposit on a credit card and had the charges reversed. Her April event is now being held at the school and scaled down from 500 to 200 people. "This was going to be a catered dinner, now we're talking about finger sandwiches and dessert," she said.Olivieri said he has not been able to reach any of the lessees and there were no records left. "If they had left the paperwork there, we would have done something to get as many of those parties taken care of as possible," he said.

Eric Kopp, commissioner for Suffolk's Consumer Affairs department, said he is sending out notices of violation to the three lessees, charging them with engaging in "deceptive or unconscionable trade practices." The fine for a first offense is $750 and $1,500 for each offense after that, he said.

Jackie Fox, restaurant and catering sales manager for Colonial Springs Golf Club in East Farmingdale, is offering a special discount for those who had events planned at La Grange and need a new venue. She can be reached at jfox@colonialspringsgolf.com or 631-643-1050, ext. 34.

The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook is also offering to help those left without a venue. Member Tom Pelletier said the organization will reduce its rental fee by the amount left as a deposit for La Grange. Those interested can call 631-751-0297 for additional information or send an email to office@uufsb.org.

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