Drago Cvitanovich, who made his way to New Orleans from what is now Croatia to open the legendary Metairie seafood restaurant Drago's, died Saturday at his home. He was 94.

Many will remember Cvitanovich for his and his wife Klara's co-founding of an eatery that serves millions of its trademark charbroiled oysters annually from three locations and where the owner serenaded countless customers on their birthdays with "Happy Birthday" — or, as he pronounced it, "Happy Birzzday."

But Klara Cvitanovich remembered her husband as perhaps the proudest immigrant she knew, a man who first came to the United States to reunite with three siblings, making stops in Germany and Canada before helping her raise one son who took over the family business and a second who is now the chief medical examiner of Jefferson Parish.

"He was so proud of his country that he was born in," said Klara Cvitanovich, referring to Croatia, where she also was born. She grew up about 75 miles from Drago but didn't meet him until they both happened to be celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans almost six decades ago.

She continued, "Yet, when he came to America, he became the proudest American."

Drago Cvitanovich, the second youngest of 12 siblings, was born in an area of Croatia that was home to many oyster fishermen and that until 1991 formed part of Yugoslavia. He studied at a Franciscan school in his youth and resolved to flee his country after it fell under the control of a Communist regime.

He spent a few months in jail after being caught trying to cross the Adriatic Sea in a rowboat, according to his family. When he got out, he made a run for it again — by land, this time. He arrived in Germany and worked for the U.S. Army as a civilian military policeman.

Drago Cvitanovich military uniform

Drago Cvitanovich in his military police uniform, courtesy of the Cvitanovich family

In 1958, he took a trip to New Orleans, where two sisters — Gloria and Mary — and a brother, David, lived. His goal was to experience his first Carnival, but along the way he met Klara, who also was visiting relatives.

The two got married three weeks later, in the Plaquemines Parish community of Buras.

About a week after that, with his visa set to expire, Drago and Klara Cvitanovich moved to Canada, where he got his start in the food service industry, running a dining room that fed a 1,200-man construction crew building a river dam. Meanwhile, he and Klara had their two boys: Tommy and Gerry.

In 1964, the Cvitanoviches immigrated to the United States, returning to New Orleans.

"Mom and Dad would say they came with two boys, three suitcases and a whole lot of dreams," said Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, now in his second term as the Jefferson Parish coroner.

To start realizing those dreams, Drago Cvitanovich worked at two local restaurants.

The first was a neighborhood restaurant in Lakeview — a place called Drago's, which was owned by his sister Gloria and named after her husband. When that Drago's closed, he spent a couple of years working at Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter.

Finally, in 1969, with money borrowed from a cousin, the owner of Mary Mahoney's restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi, Drago and Klara Cvitanovich opened the doors to their own Drago's at North Arnoult Road and 18th Street in Metairie's Fat City district.

Drago Cvitanovich and Mary Mahoney

Drago Cvitanovich and Mary Mahoney, his cousin and founder of a famous restaurant in Biloxi, Mississippi, courtesy of the Cvitanovich family

Drago's was initially small, seating at most 60 diners. But it didn't stay that way long. The restaurant and seafood bar — along with affiliates at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel and in Jackson, Mississippi — now serves a mind-boggling 4 million oysters a year. 

The three restaurants employ more than 450 people, who spend much of their time preparing and serving the charbroiled-style oysters that were invented by Tommy and contain essentially the same ingredients as Italian garlic bread.

In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, the Cvitanovich family and their employees gave away nearly 80,000 free meals to flood victims.

Lifetime achievement-style laurels rolled in for Drago and Klara Cvitanovich, even after he retired about 15 years ago to spend time with his eight grandchildren, leaving the business to his wife and Tommy. 

Drago and Klara Cvitanovich earned induction into the Louisiana Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, and they received a New Orleans Wine and Food Experience lifetime achievement award named after restaurateur Ella Brennan.

The Louisiana Hospitality Foundation created an award named after Drago Cvitanovich that recognizes outstanding philanthropy by an entrepreneur.

He served as the king of Metairie's Argus parade on Mardi Gras 1995.

Tommy Cvitanovich, himself revered by local food lovers, said he often tells people his educational major was "Daddy," meaning he knew early in his life that he wanted to be a restaurateur modeled after his father.

However, Gerry Cvitanovich pointed out another tribute to his dad that was just as meaningful: an inscription dedicated to Drago and Klara Cvitanovich on Woldenberg Riverfront Park's Monument to the Immigrant.

"Drago and Klara Cvitanovich immigrated to the United States with a vision that only hard work and perseverance could make happen," the inscription reads. "What they gave to their sons and others is an example for generations to follow."

Visitation will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans, and from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Clement of Rome Church, 3978 West Esplanade Ave., Metairie, followed by a Mass at 12:30 p.m. at the church. Burial will be in Lake Lawn Park Cemetery.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.