Rest in Peace, James ‘Jimmy’ Cavanaugh

Beloved former Essex County Freeholder James A. Cavanaugh of Chester Twp., a larger-than-life figure who succeeded on multiple fronts in life with a sense of style and energy – owner and operator of one of the most celebrated bar/restaurants in New Jersey and founder of a respected multi-million-dollar contracting and real estate development business, has died. He died peacefully at home in his sleep on June 6, aged 80, surrounded by his family and friends, after a long battle with liver disease.

Appointed to fill an unexpired term of Freeholder-At-Large, Mr. Cavanaugh belonged to a golden age of freeholders, serving three terms, from 1987 to 1996. He served as Chairman of Public Works Committee & Public Safety/Penal Committee and as Freeholder Board Vice President. An Irish and Italian American, Mr. Cavanaugh was Italian Tribune’s Man of the Year in 1996, the same year he marched as Grand Marshal in the Nutley St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The son of a family that owned Cucuzzella Bakery in Newark, and a 1961 graduate of Columbia High School in South Orange, Mr. Cavanaugh went to Vale School of Real Estate & Insurance, Newark and the New Jersey State Police Academy in Sea Girt. He would serve as an undercover investigator for the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety Alcoholic Beverage Control (1967-1969).

From 1969 to 1992 he established and ran J.A. Cavanaugh Contractors, one of the biggest heavy earth moving and bridge construction companies in the state. In 1992, he founded Phoenix Contractors and Developers, which he owned to the present. Mr. Cavanaugh built his enterprise from 15 employees into a heavy construction company serving both public and private sectors, and was the industry leader in Brownfield Development. Mr. Cavanaugh started as a restaurateur in 1979. He owned The Wedgwood, Society Hill, South Street, Argyles, Phoebe’s, and Jimmy’s Haunt. In 2011, he opened the acclaimed Iron Bar/Revolution Gastro Pub in Morristown. He was proud of the nightspot that Inside New Jersey Lifestyle Magazine listed as number one. He proudly designed, built, and decorated every detail of his restaurants himself.

Mr. Cavanaugh’s public and community service involvement was considerable.

A 2010 inductee into the Essex County Democratic Committee Hall of Fame, Mr. Cavanaugh was also recipient of the 1996 West Caldwell Democratic Commitee’s Community Service Award, Chairman of the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in Morristown, and a proud member of the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association (UTCANJ), National Utility Constructors Association (NUCA), American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), New Jersey Alliance for Action, Associated General Contractors (AGC), Knights of Columbus, Independent Business Association, and Operating Engineers Local 825. He was an Essex-West Hudson Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO Honoree.

He served on the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Newark Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, Essex County Planning Board, and in the Giblin and Cryan Associations. He was the Essex County Improvement Authority Project Coordinator for the Essex County Correctional Facility, Gibraltar Building Courts Facility, and Bears Stadium. He was the founder of Crack Down, Inc., a non-profit anti-drug awareness organization. He was the Secretary of the five-member Executive Board of the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority. He was also a member of the Essex County College & Vocational Schools, Board of Estimates. He was a member of the Friends of Brian Boru, Chairman of the Michael Delahunty Memorial Committee, and member of the 200 Club of Morris County. He was a proud supporter of Memorial Sloan Kettering Children’s Cancer Research, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Smile Train, Boys Town, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Wounded Warriors, Disabled Veterans National Foundation, Franciscan Mission, and Ann’s Shrine.

Jimmy loved his family more than anything and was dedicated to his wife and children. He loved music, specifically doo wops from the fifties and Elvis. He loved singing in the car and dancing. He was generous and would help anyone in need. He was interested in learning about military history, science, and space. He never stopped learning. He built an empire despite never going to college. He loved to travel abroad, and spent summers at the beach in Lavallette, where he enjoyed going to the boardwalk and playing arcade games with his family. He collected classic cars and loved hosting his friends that he grew up with from the neighborhood in Newark for lunch at his restaurant and down the shore. His best friend, Lenny Zenatti, was like a brother to him. He had a wicked sense of humor and had a way with people, as he could talk to anyone. He loved making his mom’s homemade gravy and meatballs, and going to restaurants, especially for Italian food like the Belmont Tavern. He had a sweet tooth and loved ice cream. He loved playing with his late dog, Izaboo. He was known for his crazy suits and ties. Above all, he loved helping people and giving back whenever he could.

Mr. Cavanaugh is survived by his wife Rhea (Zelinski) and his children: Danielle Miller, her husband Mike Miller,

Joseph Cavanaugh, his wife Jen Cavanaugh, Emily Cavanaugh, and Diana Christian, and his grandchildren Olivia Miller, Camille Miller, Natalie Miller, Daniel Cavanaugh, and Holden Cavanaugh.

He was predeceased by his parents Joseph and Antonina (Cucuzzella) Cavanaugh.

Tuesday is the viewing from 4-8 p.m. at Tuttle Funeral Home on Route 10 in Randolph. Wednesday at 11 a.m. is the funeral mass, at St Lawrence Catholic Church on Main Street in Chester. Mourners will proceed to the cemetery, one hour away, Holy Cross in North Arlington. After the burial, they will go to Revolution in Morristown for a repass and celebration of Mr. Cavanaugh’s life.


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2 responses to “Rest in Peace, James ‘Jimmy’ Cavanaugh”

  1. My deepest and heartfelt thoughts and condolences go out to the entire Cavanaugh family. I was blessed to have known Jimmy for the last 46 years. He has meant so much to me in so many ways, I will miss him tremendously. Rest in peace, Jimmy, will never forget you and will always love you.

  2. My deepest sympathy to the family , Jimmy and I shared the title of the Italian man and woman of the year in the Italian Tribune Newark parade . jimmy was one of the nicest gentlemen and a very thoughtful friend , he always was available for anyone , I was privileged to have known him and call him a friend . Former NJ Secretary of State , Joan haberle.

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