It’s Not Your Imagination: Illusione Founder Dion Giolito is a True Believer – In Tobacco
had his priorities even as a teenager. It was cigars.
So when the Las Vegas native won $1,200 on a royal flush in his hometown in 1985, the 18-year-old’s first trek was to the Las Vegas Cigar Co., not far from Money Plays, the casino where he won the cash.
“I said ‘I want a box’ and they said ‘what do you like?’” Giolito, now 55, recalls. “I liked the Excalibur No. 1 and they had something for me, I think it was $130 for a box.”
As he was leaving the store, his purchase proudly tucked under his arm, the cigar store clerk asked him to hold up.
“He says ‘hey kid’ and throws in five or six more cigars,” Giolito says. It was a moment right out of the Mean Joe Greene Coca-Cola ad of the 70s, “Hey Kid, Catch!” tossing a can of Coke to a young fan, similar in that it inspired Giolito as it did the child in the ad, who presumably embarked on a life full of football.
Just as much so, Giolito took on a life full of cigars, first as a shop owner in Reno then as the founder of Illusione Cigars.
It wasn’t a straight line that took him there.
Along the way, there was a shot at rock n’ roll stardom and some time as an independent touring and recording musician. But the allure of cigars, which have been part of his life since that casino victory in the 80s, has remained a constant.
Illusione is the culmination of his pursuits, a brand he launched in 2006 as an in-house smoke for his store, Fumare, in Reno, Nevada. It started with a theme that was suitable for the vast expanse of the deserts of the southwest, where conspiracies and UFOs were ubiquitous.
The names of his cigars suggested his own fascination with otherworldly and other offbeat theories. The mk was a 5 1/8 x 42 corona, connecting its title to the infamous Project MKUltra, a government plot that gave psychedelic drugs to unwitting subjects to explore drug-related interrogations. The hl was a 7.5 x 40 lancero that refers to holy lance, or the spear of destiny that was said to have gouged Jesus as he died on the cross.
He became so enamored of the project that he named a line ULTRA, just in case folks missed the mk message.
Things are different now, as a perusal of smokes at Illusione offers something a little off kilter, otherworldly but not as overt.
“Yes, it has changed a bit but even with the branding change, we’re still on point and we still have consistency with the messaging, even as the imagery is more subtle,” Giolito says. The seeing eye remains, for example, “which has been attached to the brand since day one. Deep in mind, and that goes to the esoteric, which is also still there and with the UFO, that ties it up as the UFO beams up.”
Patrons understand the marketing, with the all-seeing eye.
“They kind of dip into ‘what’s this all about?’” he says. “I think they’re feeling around to see if I’m a Mason.”
“We’re Looking for a Drummer”
He started as a saxophone player in 6th grade but, hell, who’s going to play those drums?
“So when I got to high school, I took up drums, and really had fun with that,” he says. He formed a band with some classmates and called it Dead End.
Growing up in Las Vegas meant he was exposed to a lot of the good stuff as national tours loved to route through the town. Even the smaller, independent label bands he embraced came through.
“All the gigs I went to in high school were either desert shows or warehouse shows,” Giolito says, ticking off a list of bands he took in as a kid. “I saw Social D in the day, Agent Orange, Exploited, Black Flag, the Minutemen.”
Time moved forward and he found himself in Reno working at a cigar store, The Tinder Box. Giolito, who studied music at one point, found himself in a real local band called the Atomiks, a rockabilly trio with stand-up bass, guitar and Giolito’s rangy frame, complete with 100-mph hairdo, behind the drums.
The Atomiks were into it, complete with a $600 used van. They recorded two LPs and hit the road.
“We did a month all over the U.S., playing from Roswell [New Mexico] to Joplin [Missouri] to New Orleans,” he says. They were touring econo, road slang for bands who made just enough for gas money and, on a good night, some food.
Giolito brought some smokes with him on the trip, some Villager exports, some Toscanellis.
But there was an “almost” to his music career, a happenstance that would have changed things forever.
Giolito spent some time in another band, BBQ Salad, that played one night in Las Vegas in the early 90s. Rock band Pearl Jam was also playing in town that evening, albeit in a larger venue.
“After their show, some guys from Pearl Jam came over to the place we were playing and at the time the band had a temporary drummer,” Giolito says. As bands do, some of the Pearl Jam members got up and jammed a bit with BBQ Salad.
“After our set, Pearl Jam’s road manager came up and said, ‘the guys like the way you play, and our drummer just quit. We’re looking for a drummer,’ and they asked me to try out. I said, ‘give me a song list and three days to learn it.’”
He was asked to stand by and wait for the call to fly to Seattle for the audition.
But the Pearl Jam tour ended and the audition never came. Instead, the road manager rang Giolito and said the band had settled on Jack Irons, who can be blamed as a founding member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“It was a door that kinda closed on me, but being in a band creates circumstances where you meet people that can change your life,” Giolito says.
And with that, a fan of cigars since his teen years, his future was sealed.
The Tinder Box wouldn’t give him a break when he asked to manage an underperforming store. But Giolito didn’t let it deter him.
“I just opened my own store,” he says. “When I told them, the manager looked at the owner in a panic, and said ‘what if we do this or that, open another Tinder Box, make you the manager?’ It was too late, I already put down rent on a place.”
Curating the humidor was his foremost interest.
“I evaluated the lay of the land, what [Tinder Box] carried and what they didn’t,” Giolito says. “I looked at the market and the brands – I didn’t want to step on toes – -and picked a dozen brands that they didn’t carry.”
Then, of all the ideas, he became the lone dealer of Davidoff white-label cigars in Reno, “which was a cherry on the sundae.”
“Starting my own brand was the last thing I wanted to do. I really wanted an in-house cigar.”
He was introduced to Pete Johnson, owner of Tatuaje, who in turn introduced him to Eduardo Fernandez of Aganorsa, one of the largest growers of premium cigar tobacco in all of Nicaragua. Giolito’s pursuant travels to Nicaragua began his quest to learn everything he could about tobacco.
“I started traveling to Nicaragua,” Giolito says, something that continues to this day. The seed varietals Fernandez was using were fantastic, Criollo from Cuba brought back by the fellows that were tending the fields, which Fernandez had also expanded.
It was on a trip to Nicaragua that Giolito met Nick Melillo, who was then executive vice president of international operations for Drew Estate. Giolito was there to commence the ill-fated Illusione Nosotros, which was a collaboration with Jonathan Drew that never fully took off.
“He was hanging out at the back of the Drew Estate factory,” Melillo says. “There were a lot of challenges on the tobacco side, but I got to see Dion’s love and passion for tobacco and blending. We hit it off. We geeked out on tobacco together.”
It didn’t hurt that they shared an affection for conspiracies and otherworld interests.
“It contributed to our friendship, since we’re looking through bales of tobacco all day,” Melillo says. “His branding came up and he learned I am into a lot of these things, or at least talking about them.”
Plus, Dion, Melillo says, “is authentic, that’s what makes his brand a success. He’s not an outgoing, talkative person, and he’s kind of intimidating, very inward focused. But he’s authentic.”
The trips to Nicaragua continued even as Giolito’s cigars drew rave reviews.
“I really learned from these guys down there, I had to,” he says. It took three years of flying back and forth to Nicaragua, fact-finding missions, he calls them.
“I had to learn more about the back-end process and why certain tobaccos smoke a certain way and how they come together, the science of the blending. The old Cubans don’t offer any information at all when someone like me gets into the business and it can be intimidating. But the old school Cuban guys, they will answer you if you ask more of them. It’s their passion, it’s what they did with their lives.”
Giolito met the fellows who woke up with a cigar on the nightstand and took a puff before heading to the factory, which is where he felt the most comfortable, watching the blenders and rollers.
“That’s where I garnered a lot of information,” he says. “I’d say ‘how does that work?’ and try to tie it together with something I had been speaking about, then there’s this blend and I’d want to know how it was put together and why. I’d try it doing trial and error. I got to the point where Eduardo gave me carte blanche.”
Giolito became an accomplished craftsman, good enough that he could tell an exact blend through smoking, much like a music engineer can tell which kind of microphone or amp is used on a recording.
In an episode of Boveda’s Box Press podcast from 2020, Erik Espinosa told a story of meeting Giolito at a trade show and laying a Laranja on him.
“He walks off and comes back an hour later and tells me ‘that’s one of the best cigars I’ve tried at the show,’” Espinosa said. “He looks at it, ‘is this so-and-so wrapper?’ I said ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘does it have so-and-so?’ I said, ‘yeah.’”
“Now you’ve got the whole blend almost,” Espinosa said. “You got to remember the Colonel [Sanders of KFC fame] never revealed the 11 herbs and spices, and he’s getting really close to the recipe here…so he tells me ‘does it have so-and-so?’ and I said ‘no.’”
The next year Giolito approached Espinosa again at a trade show and once formalities were dispersed, Espinosa had to clear the air.
“I want to apologize to you,” Espinosa said to him. “‘Last year when you [asked] me ‘did it have so-and-so?’ it did.’”
Giolito had guessed the blend within an hour of smoking.
“Since that day, he’s always had my respect,” Espinosa said.
His Own Identity
It took about five years before Illusione sales eclipsed the store’s revenue. He soon added a sales director, a social media agent to go along with the artist/designer he has always kept at hand.
For his next trick, Giolito bought OneOff in 2017 and soon created a new, puro version produced at Aganorsa Leaf’s Tabacos Valle de Jalapa factory in Estelí. By 2018, he had the new blend to market in seven sizes.
In 2021, he announced Illusione would be producing Allegria, a sister brand of OneOff, both originally from the stable of Andrea Molinari.
“Those two were what I wanted as they made such an impression on me,” Giolito says. “I met Andrea, he was giving away cigars at the Big Smoke and his booth had a line through the hall and he’s this big persona.”
A vigilant fly-in-the-ointment culture vulture, Giolito was attracted to the peace sign attached to OneOff cigars, which was part of the original branding when it was released in 2001.
“That was a time when people still had this mentality of peace and love that went against what was going on as we were going to war against Iraq and Afghanistan pre and post 911,” Giolito says. “No one wanted to hear that, so it made this counterculture statement. I was all right with that.”
He kept the peace sign.
Giolito’s industry colleagues and partners know of his push-the-envelope style. Most approve.
“My first impression of Dion was in a magazine article,” Jonathan Drew said in a text message. “I thought he was absolutely crazy. Dion was in pajamas and appeared to be singing opera of some nature, probably Italian opera. In the article, homie was chatting it up about flying saucers and outta space phenomenon of various nature. I realized at that moment that he was definitely not ‘industry standard.’”
Shortly after reading the article, Drew saw Illusione at a store and “after smoking three or four boxes of Illusione Original Documents, it became one of my favorite cigars, along with Pete Johnson’s Tatuaje brown label. Dion is a classy guy, pure class. Proud to call him my friend.”
As far as the next big thing, Giolito is past it. He’s happy with the here and now, and the store keeps him vibrant.
“The store is my gig, I love it, and it’s what I was bred to do,” he says. “My creative force was playing in a band and creating songs and everything I put into being in a band has been replaced with blending and creating new brands.”
He’s also still big on his original mission – to get a rise from people, both in terms of making top notch smokes and delivering conspiracies. Little did he know back then that he would be vindicated.
“All that stuff I talked about when it was conspiracy 10 or 15 years ago has been exposed and proven true over the years, be it on Art Bell or on MKUltra, it was fringe, nutjob stuff, now it’s all above the radar,” Giolito says. “Everything I did back then is now pop culture. The reason I did it back then was because no one else was doing it and I would be the last guy to put on a Panama hat and get into a field and come off as legit. So I decided to make my own little campsite. I wasn’t looking to be big with it.”