At first glance, Leo’s Grandevous, the oldest Italian restaurant in Hoboken, may seem a bit behind the times. There is no dancefloor pulsing with the beats of songs on the pop charts. There aren’t 20 televisions. But calling Leo’s old fashioned is a presumption. A closer look at the menu, and the restaurant’s history, reveals something slightly different -- an establishment that has always taken steps to change with the times, but has still worked hard to maintain its originality and integrity as a staple of Old Hoboken.
As the restaurant approaches its 75th birthday next year, its co-owners – Nicholas DePalma, the grandson of founder Leo DiTerlizzi, and Sergio DeNichilo, his cousin – are taking steps to modernize their restaurant, but are refusing to give up on what the restaurant has always stood for: providing a family friendly, authentic Italian dining experience to all.
“We’re a great example of a place that’s a neighborhood restaurant, no frills, and great food,” said DePalma. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not on the cutting edge.”
“We’re a great example of a place that’s a neighborhood restaurant, no frills and great food.” – Nicholas DePalma
“They asked their American distributors where they should go to introduce their product in America, and the distributors told them Leo’s in Hoboken,” said DePalma.
Cutting edge products
One product, I Spirit, is a fine Italian vodka sold only in a handful of liquor stores, but at no other restaurant in Hoboken, DePalma said. Like Leo’s, the company behind I Spirit is family owned, the brainchild of a grandson of the world famous Alessandro Martini. The grandson, Cesare, visited Leo’s personally to pitch his company’s new vodka.
So far, the liquor’s been a hit.
“People have come from all over because they know we’re carrying it and that no one else is,” said DePalma.
Another new product is the Giovane pizza crust, a brand new imported crust mix which produces a light and fluffy pizza full of antioxidants and Omega 3s. A slice made with Giovane means diners can skip the bloatedness commonly felt after eating pizza, said DeNichilo, and it tastes fantastic.
Finally, no Italian dinner is complete without cannoli, and Leo’s has one of the sweetest recipes around. The restaurant has recently begun importing its cannoli shells, which are handmade and hand-dipped in chocolate. Normally, a hand-dipped cannoli isn’t that impressive, but Leo’s are coated with Italian chocolate only on the inside of the shell, rather than all around.
“It’s a little sweeter and it gives it a little extra style,” said DeNichilo.
Bar had several ‘firsts’
According to DePalma and DeNichilo, making small changes to modernize Leo’s bit by bit are nothing new. A decade or so after DiTerlizzi opened the place in 1939, Leo’s was the first bar in Hoboken to be equipped with a television. It was a much bigger deal then than it would be now, obviously. Leo’s daughter and her friends would spend long afternoons at the bar watching “Howdy Doody.”
A couple of more decades went by, and Leo’s was the first place with cable, drawing crowds from out of town to watch the New York Rangers, whose games were rarely televised on network stations. Not long after, Leo’s introduced the bar pie, though another restaurant, the Blue Point, had introduced it around the same time.
“So technically, no one’s sure who did it first, but the Blue Point shut down, so due to longevity I guess we can claim it,” said DeNichilo. “There’s no one around to contest it.”
The restaurant is also known for some unique amenities, including a juke box that plays primarily Frank Sinatra tunes.
History and families
In truth, there’s not really anyone around who remembers Leo’s beginnings. But the 1939 Leo’s isn’t hard to imagine – the menu’s staple items are still taken directly from the recipe book of DiTerlizzi’s wife, Tessie, the mussels are still delivered fresh to the restaurant five times a week, and not one of the restaurant’s four waitresses has been there for less than 25 years.
And Leo’s will always be a place where families are welcome.
“A lot of restaurants these days segregate where they seat people based on whether or not they have kids,” said DeNichilo. “We don’t do that, we look at it as serving a new generation of Hobokenites.”
So yes, Leo’s is still the same Leo’s it’s always been, there’s just some tweaking happening on the corner of Grand and Second Streets – a corner which, by the way, gives the restaurant its name.
“Grandevous, like, rendezvous on Grand,” said DePalma. “It 1939, that was cutting edge marketing.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org