YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The folks who go to Jimmy’s Italian Specialties in Liberty every Christmas Eve for seafood know they are in for a long wait.
But they don’t mind, says store owner and manager Frank Occhibove, because the time they spend in line becomes a reunion. They run into old friends who are home for the holidays and others they see only once a year.
Mike Allegretto, owner of Lariccia’s Italian Marketplace in Boardman, says the situation is the same at his store.
Jimmy’s and Lariccia’s are just two of the many delicatessens in the Mahoning Valley. Each is a place where traditional, and usually ethnic, food is prepared for takeout every day with strict attention to detail and consistency.
Others include Kravitz Deli, Krakus Polish Deli, Ghossain’s Mediterranean Foods, Tringhese’s Cornersburg Italian Specialties and K’nafa Mediterranean Restaurant.
While each deli has regular customers who stop in all year, the holiday season is a particularly busy time for them. The Business Journal checked in with their owners for this report.
JIMMY’S ITALIAN SPECIALTIES
Jimmy’s Italian Specialties, 3230 Belmont Ave., Liberty Township, is one of the biggest and busiest Italian deli-bakeries you’ll find anywhere. The deli counter gets a lunch crush every day and the bakery has one of the best selections of Italian cookies and desserts in a wide radius.
It was started by Jimmy Occhibove in 1974 as an Italian gift shop in his garage in the Brier Hill neighborhood and moved into Colonial Plaza in Liberty in 1983. The deli settled into its current location, with its brightly painted Italianate architecture and courtyard, in 2007.
Frank Occhibove, who is the son of Jimmy and his wife, Irene, was born into the business and loves it.
The lines to buy fish for the Feast of Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas Eve tradition, “are literally out the door, starting in the morning,” he says, but customers don’t mind. “I hear them say, ‘I grew up with this guy!’ [as they see old friends]. They reminisce. When people come in from out of town, we are one of their stops.”
As for that bakery, Occhibove says “90% of the items are baked here on the premises. Our pastry chef has been with us for 11 years. The few things we bring in are from other small bakeries like us, but it’s still homemade and not mass-produced.”
Despite ever-rising costs, Jimmy’s never changes its recipes. It’s proven to be one the keys to the store’s longevity.
“We always use the top ingredients,” Occhibove says. “I never understood those who use cheaper ingredients. I’ve seen some mom-and-pop stores like us that didn’t make it because they cut corners. We didn’t. We raise prices when we have to but our customers understand it’s always the same product.”
KRAKUS POLISH DELI
Marta Mazur is a native of Poland who immigrated to America in 1981, settling in Connecticut.
After moving to Youngstown in 2009, she realized there were a lot of Polish people here but nowhere to buy Polish food.
“They would get together and make a list of what they wanted and then send someone to Cleveland to pick up the order,” Mazur says.
She decided to fill the need and opened Krakus Polish Deli, 7050 Market St., Boardman, in 2012.
“People really responded to the hot foods,” she says. “The pierogi, the stuffed cabbage … those are our biggest sellers. We make them hot and ready to go every day.”
The menu has daily specials but customers can usually get kielbasa, haluski, stew and several varieties of pierogi. The store also carries imported specialties and hard to find ingredients.
Mazur says her business booms before Christmas and Easter as folks stock up on traditional foods for holiday meals.
“We offer a wigilia [‘vigil’] Polish Christmas Eve dinner,” she says. “You can pick up the whole dinner to go.
“People also come in [before the holidays] to pick up borscht, or [imported] mushrooms and pickled cabbage to use in making their own food at home. We help them with their traditions.”
Mazur explains that she gets many customers who trace their heritage to other Slavic nations besides Poland.
“Every Eastern European country has the same foods, but a different word for it,” she says.
With three locations, Ghossain’s Gourmet Mediterranean Foods is a Mahoning Valley institution.
But its reach goes far beyond.
“We ship our flatbreads to restaurants that make flatbread pizzas,” says Joe Ghossain, the third-generation owner of the deli-bakery. “We also ship via frozen freight to distributors and by UPS to private customers. We ship to country clubs in Florida, and some venues in Nevada … We’ve shipped orders to Martha Stewart’s house as well as to Oscar de la Renta and Bill Clinton.”
Average folks and the rich and famous usually discover Ghossain’s the same way: word of mouth.
“After 50 years, you acquire a fan base,” Ghossain says.
The main Ghossain’s is at 3990 South Ave., Boardman, with satellite locations at 6261 Youngstown Road, Niles; and 4559 Boardman-Canfield Road, Canfield.
The bakery for all three stores is at the South Avenue location.
While Ghossain’s food is native to Arab nations, its customer base encompasses all who enjoy the food and want to eat healthful foods.
“The Mediterranean diet contains the good fats, like olive oil,” Ghossain says. “All of our lettuce is organic, and we go through a lot of parsley, bulgur wheat, onions, lemons and tomatoes.”
Almost all of the produce is sourced from local growers, except in the winter months, he says, and all food is prepared from scratch.
“Our Mediterranean bowls, wraps and salads are a popular growth segment,” he says.
Ghossain’s also offers 11 varieties of hummus and can customize platters for parties with a selection of hummus, tabbouleh, cheeses and dips.
Sam Awad, a Palestinian, immigrated to America in 2016 and purchased K’nafa, 3129 Belmont Ave., Liberty, a year ago.
He kept the name – which translates as “sweets” or “dessert” – but added some touches of his own.
The last time Awad was in his homeland was a few years ago, when his mother died. He pours his memories of her into everything he does at K’nafa.
“I opened this place because I was inspired by her,” Awad says. “I put the same love into my food as a way to honor her.”
From shawarma to kebabs, and fresh baked pita bread to homemade baklava, K’nafa offers every specialty of the eastern Mediterranean region.
Awad says his customers include those of Middle Eastern heritage, as well as many Jews and Puerto Ricans. The imported food section of his deli carries items and ingredients for those styles of cooking.
Awad says he frequently gets customers traveling through on nearby Interstate 80, who get off at the Belmont Avenue exit specifically to shop at K’nafa.
“It is because we are halal,” he says, referring to food prepared in a way that complies with Islamic regulations. “They [search for us on the internet] and then stop here as they travel through.”
Halal is a concept similar to the Jewish kosher regulations, he explains, adding that it also ensures food is of a higher quality.
TRINGHESE’S CORNERSBURG ITALIAN SPECIALTIES
Katie (Tringhese) Salupo was working as a teacher in Cincinnati when her father bought Cornersburg Italian Specialties a decade ago. He was the longtime accountant for the business and bought it when the previous owner put it up for sale.
“He asked me if I would like to come back and try running this place. So I did,” Salupo says. “I loved it.”
She has been operating the Italian deli-bakery ever since. She bought it from her father last year.
The store has been open for 40 years and hasn’t changed much. It has a homey atmosphere and is still known for its fresh baked bread, pizzelles and other sweets, homemade gnocchi, pizza, pepperoni rolls, baked chicken and Italian sausage, which is made on-site and sold cooked and raw.
It also has a hot foods deli case with daily specials.
Like other Italian delis, Cornersburg has a line out the door for Christmas Eve staples such as fried smelt, shrimp and calamari.
She’s already bracing herself for the blizzard of holiday sales.
“We have 300 rolls and 200 loaves of bread on order,” Salupo says. “Last year, I worked 40 out of the 48 hours before Christmas.”
When the rush is over, she and her family rests. “We celebrate Christmas on the 27th because on Christmas Day, we are sleeping,” she says.
Repeat customers are the store’s lifeblood. Salupo says she often sees three generations of customers from the same family.
“One of our favorite customers comes in every Friday and gets a pound and a half of mozzarella and takes it home to make pizzas,” Salupo says. “[His family] used to do that when he was a boy going to St. Christine’s school. Now he’s 45 and still doing it.”
Others come in and buy pepperoni rolls by the dozens to bring to their children who are away at college.
“I don’t know if it’s the food, the people or a combination, but we have customers who love it and keep coming back,” Salupo says.
“When we see a new customer, we’ll say, ‘Take a pepperoni roll for free and you’ll be back.’ And they do come back.”
LARICCIA’S ITALIAN MARKETPLACE
The oldest deli business in the area is almost certainly Lariccia’s Italian Marketplace at 7438 Southern Blvd. in Boardman, which dates to 1907.
The secret to its longevity is its adherence to quality and tradition. “Our recipes have not changed,” says owner Mike Allegretto.
The store’s long-time best seller is its meatball mix.
“When we were located on East Federal Street back in the 1940s, [then owner John Lariccia] was mixing up some meatball mix for himself. A customer walked in and asked how much it costs. A clerk started to say it’s not for sale, but John stopped him. Today, we sell on average 200 pounds a day. There are times when it’s on sale that we’ll sell 1,500 pounds a day. But that’s how it got started.”
Lariccia’s also makes and bottles its tomato sauce, which is sold in many retail outlets in the Valley.
With Christmas Eve coming up, Allegretto is stocking up to meet the seafood demand.
“We will sell 1,000 pounds of cooked fish – haddock, smelts, squid,” he says. “I just placed an order for 4,400 pounds of calamari.”
Another legendary Youngstown deli is Kravitz, which was founded in 1939 on the city’s North Side and moved to its present location, 3135 Belmont Ave. in Liberty, in 1970.
The deli was owned by the Kravitz family until April of this year, when it was sold to Matt Rydarowicz.
But its old-school authenticity continues, and its overstuffed corned beef sandwiches are still the top seller. Rydarowicz knows better than to mess with success.
“The menu is the menu, and we will not be changing it, but there are some extra things I will be adding,” he says.
First up, he says, will likely be french fries. Kravitz sandwiches come with a pickle and chips. Fries have never been an option but could be in the near future.
Before he bought the deli, Rydarowicz had worked with previous owner Jack Kravitz on catering jobs. “I’m learning as I go,” he says. “I still talk to Jack [for advice].”
The tradition of Jewish food, including bagels and baked goods, will be upheld, and so will the deli’s reputation as a place where all feel at home.
“You feel welcome when you come here,” Rydarowicz says. “That’s how Jack ran it, and that’s how his mother ran it.”
Noday’s Deli has long been known for its pepperoni rolls. The heavyweight delicacies also come stuffed with spinach, ham and cheese, spinach and about a dozen other fillings.
The deli at 5229 Mahoning Ave., Austintown, which opened in 1991, is also known for its Friday fish fries, and sells a whole lot of chicken.
In fact, Noday’s stands out in the deli landscape for its “all over the map” menu, which also includes homemade pierogi, pizza, wings, bread and soup.
“We are an all-around deli,” says owner Ken Noday. “I think it’s too hard to make it on just one item. But everything here is homemade.”
The deli had been known for pepperoni rolls long before the current owners bought it.
They kept them on the menu, “but we just made them better,” Noday says. “We added more cheese and pepperoni, and we started putting sauce in them.”
Pictured at top: Frank Occhibove is the owner and manager of Jimmy’s Italian Specialties.