This story is the first in series of features profiling LGBTQ+ families across Chicago. Read more here.
HUMBOLDT PARK — Phoenix the dachshund and her family, affectionately nicknamed “the Pepperonis,” spent weeks preparing for Miss Foozie’s Pet Parade and costume contest last year.
Cavair Robinson, who performs in drag as Baby Olivia, took charge as Phoenix’s pageant coach, while Phoenix’s human, Toni Solaru, acted as the dachshund’s creative director.
With the help of the other two Pepperonis — Lucia Spinelli and Teagan O’Toole — the family put Phoenix in drag as a dog version of Betty White. It was a strategic costuming decision meant to appeal to the crowd at Andersonville Midsommarfest, where the Pet Parade is held annually, Solaru said.
“Phoenix was a star,” Solaru said. “Everyone was coming up and giving us these compliments, taking pictures with her and saying they voted for her. So we felt very confident as a team.”
Then Miss Foozie announced the winners. Third and second place went to other dogs, which was no surprise to the Pepperonis, Solaru said. But then first place didn’t go to Phoenix, either.
The Pepperonis were “shaken,” Solaru said. The love, hard work and creativity they poured into their pup’s costume didn’t pay off.
“But we had so much fun coming together and showcasing Phoenix as the star she is,” Solaru said. “And this whole story just encapsulates our sense of humor, how much fun we have and how we approach everything as a family situation.”
The Pepperonis, a group of Chicago transplants who met each other around 2019-2020, are a chosen family, which is a form of family made of people who choose to embrace, support and love each other, regardless of blood or marriage. It’s a form of family often claimed by members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In addition to taking on fun projects like the pet parade, the Pepperonis have supported each other through profound life transitions, the pandemic and challenging medical appointments.
“We’ve only known each other for a few years, but it feels like we’ve lived 10 different lifetimes together,” Spinelli said. “We just mean so much to each other.”
The Pepperoni Origin Story
Spinelli and O’Toole were the first Pepperonis to meet when they went to a mutual friend’s bachelorette party and “trauma bonded” over a scary river-rafting ride, they said.
The Pepperoni nickname comes from an inside joke between the two that started when Spinelli was driving and O’Toole turned to her and said in an Italian accent, “I’m your Italian father and you’re doing a great job.”
“First of all, no Italian father has ever said that,” Spinelli said. “But I loved it, and it became this running joke between us that Teagan was the family’s Italian dad, Tony Pepperoni, and we all came up with our own nicknames.”
Solaru, whose nickname is Gino Pecorino, joined the family in 2020 after matching with O’Toole on Roomies.com.
Solaru was looking to leave a complicated roommate situation, while O’Toole was looking to live with other people after living alone for some time, they said. It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and both of them had just left relationships.
“I needed a friend, and Toni’s profile was beautiful,” O’Toole said. “It was very much ‘me.’ It had ‘Schitt’s Creek’ and ACAB, so we set up a zoom and immediately got to yapping. From then, we’ve been best friends.”
Solaru and Robinson, nicknamed Frankie Fettuccini, met through Grindr, they said. Robinson’s profile mentioned he was looking for friends, so Solaru messaged him, they went for a walk and immediately hit it off.
“I told the others, ‘I met this guy on Grindr, but it’s not what it sounds like,'” Solaru said. “We all went to the beach one day, and the rest is history.”
Since then, the chosen family has bonded over holding at-home, themed nights, which started as a way to celebrate occasions during the pandemic.
For Solaru’s birthday, everyone dressed up as their Pepperoni alter egos and played “Pin the Meatball on the Spaghetti.” Another birthday took on an out-of-this-world theme that transformed every room in the apartment into a space-inspired setting.
“We always dress to the theme, and Lucia sets the tone when she walks in the door with her amazing outfits,” O’Toole said.
They also bond over cross-cultural exchanges. O’Toole, an Irish immigrant, has shared the value of tea time and educated them through movies and other activities during Irish American Heritage Month. For Black History Month, Robinson and Solaru shared their favorite movies, they said.
“Black History Month was this beautiful, cross-cultural moment that meant so much to me,” Robinson said. “It’s so heartwarming to have people I can share these moments with.”
The family’s next big project is Phoenix’s redemption at this year’s Pet Parade, happening June 11.
“It’s been a full year, and Phoenix is coming back with a vengeance,” Solaru said. “We’ve got something to prove.”
‘We Found Family In Each Other’
Part of the Pepperonis’ deep bond as chosen family members is that they’ve stood by each other as support through challenging times.
“I don’t know where I’d be without these people,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole was “toxically independent” before meeting the Pepperonis, she said. But she learned to overcome this trait when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and had just her friends to lean on.
O’Toole was on a call with her doctors when she sensed they were about to deliver bad news, she said. She asked for a moment and left her bedroom to find Solaru. The two had been living together for just a couple months at the time.
“I said, ‘Toni, can you just hold my hand for a second? I think he’s going to tell me something bad,'” O’Toole said. “And they did. But it was the moment I knew that I had found the best friend in the world because Toni was so there for me.”
Solaru and Spinelli comforted O’Toole throughout her recovery, spending time in bed with her watching movies, vegging out and cracking jokes. They even made sure O’Toole had a ride and people there with her for her surgery after learning she planned to take an Uber to the procedure.
“That’s how toxically independent I was. I didn’t know how to depend on anyone,” O’Toole said. “That was the hardest, scariest time, but it was also beautiful because they had my back.”
Solaru said having the familial support from their friends has helped them feel confident exploring their sexuality and gender identity as a queer, nonbinary person.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been given the space, grace, love and support to fully look into who I am, how I want to present myself and what’s meaningful to me,” Solaru said. “They gave me unconditional love and support and just never let me give up on myself.”
Spinelli and Robinson said finding the Pepperonis has helped them feel at home in Chicago after moving here from the south suburbs and Indiana, respectively.
Everyone in the group had been going through tough times when they met, and the sense of family has helped their mental health, Spinelli said.
“I was probably at an all-time low, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it out on the other side of all my mental health issues,” Solaru said. “But now I’ve learned what love is, and meeting them has changed my whole life.”
O’Toole said she’s now the “happiest person I’ve ever been.”
“We all needed family in a way, and we found family in each other,” O’Toole said.
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