Honored by Beard Foundation, Gioia's Deli Eyes Creve Coeur Expansion

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PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/ERIN BORRINI
Last year, Gioia's Deli opened a second outpost downtown — its first expansion in 98 years of business. But it could take much less time to go from two shops to three: Co-owner Alex Donley says the sandwich shop is actively exploring the idea of further expansion, this time into Creve Coeur.

"By the end of the year, we may have three Gioia's," he says.

Long beloved for its tasty Italian-style sandwiches, and particularly its signature hot salami, Gioia's was honored this week with one of the highest awards a restaurant can get: being named "an American Classic" by the James Beard Foundation. The award, first introduced in 1998, has been bestowed upon fewer than 100 restaurants; Gioia's is the first in St. Louis.

And that means not just the honor and glory of an accolade from the nation's preeminent body of restaurant critics. It also means a free trip to Chicago for Donley, his wife and his co-owner/mother, Cathy, where they'll be guests of honor at a black-tie gala.

"It's like the Oscars — and this is like getting a lifetime achievement award," Donley says, noting that unlike the other winners, the restaurants in his category already know they've won.

For the Donleys, the award came as a total surprise; restaurants don't nominate themselves or have any idea they're being considered. They did get notice about three months before the award was announced, but they were sworn to strict secrecy. Donley says he later learned Gioia's had been on the judges' radar for ten years. "It was our time," he says.

Donley's mother and grandmother bought the business from its original owners in 1980. Donley, the youngest of three sons, was born in 1985 and says he was just five years old when his mom put him to work. "I was raised with an apron on," he says. After college, when he sought to return to the family business, his mother was initially resistant, but gave in; eight years later, he came on as her co-owner.

And that meant getting let in on a really closely guarded secret — that hot salami sandwich recipe. Gioia's has used the exact same recipe since 1918, and Donley is one of very few people in on every last detail. "Only one person from each generation knows the recipe," he says. Don't expect that to change, even if they do open another shop in west county.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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