Under a red tiled awning on the corner of Second and Grand streets sits a Hoboken institution, which is celebrating 80 years of good food, good beer, and good cheer.
Leo’s Grandevous opened in 1939 when Leo and Tessie DiTerlizzi turned a bar into a restaurant. Since then, generations of families and first-time visitors have become regulars, returning again and again for home-cooked Italian specialties, Frank Sinatra memorabilia, and a legendary jukebox, with one of the largest selections of Sinatra songs.
In April, Mayor Ravi Bhalla and the city of Hoboken celebrated the contributions of the storied restaurant with a street renaming. The sign “Leo’s Way” was unveiled. Leo’s grandchildren, owner Nick De Palma and his sister, general manager Grace Sciancalepore were on hand. The ceremony took place during a block party to mark its anniversary. Grace says it was important to celebrate the milestone with the entire community, noting that Hoboken isn’t just where she works but were she and her family live.
“Over the past 80 years, many things have changed in our Mile Square, but one has remained the same, the family tradition of Hoboken’s oldest restaurant, Leo’s Grandevous,” said Bhalla. “No restaurant embodies the Hoboken spirit more than Leo’s.”
“We are extremely proud to have been part of the Hoboken community for these 80 years,” Grace said. “We are so happy to be a source of Hoboken tradition, and we are resolved to work just as hard as the mayor to keep Hoboken a great place to live.”
In the Beginning …
The landmark has been family owned and operated for all eight decades. When the former owner moved back to Italy, he sold the bar for $500 to Leo, one of his employees.
Leo worked part-time at the bar after his shifts in the Neumann Leathers building, which really was a leather factory before it became a hub for Hoboken’s art scene.
“It was every immigrant’s dream or desire to live the American dream,” Nick says.
Back then, it was just a bar, where men gathered to shoot pool or play cards.
It morphed into a restaurant when Leo’s wife Tessie began cooking meals upstairs in their apartment and bringing them down for the bar patrons and pool players.
“She would make steamed mussels or marinara sauce and meatballs, and people would come in and ask my grandfather what his wife was making that day, so he decided to scrap the pool tables and build a kitchen,” Nick says.
When the Western Union Telegraph business closed next door, Leo bought the property turning it into a kitchen so Tessie wouldn’t have to keep going up and down stairs.
Grace and Nick were pretty much raised at Leo’s.
“I think my fondest memory of Grandpa Leo is he had this tradition on Friday nights before we opened for dinner, he went up and would dance with all the waitresses,” Grace relates. “I remember that vividly.”
“I’ve been involved in the restaurant for 32 years, and all the memories seem to melt together,” Nick says. “We have people celebrating birthdays, getting engaged, having weddings here; we’ve had wakes here, and that to us is so special, but for our customers it’s monumental. It’s just fun to look out when the restaurant is packed on a Friday night, and you see everyone enjoying themselves. It’s been going on since 1939. It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger.”
Leo’s boasts one of the largest collections of Frank Sinatra memorabilia. The walls are covered with photographs, and there’s even a surfboard, which pays him homage. Somehow, surfing and Sinatra don’t exactly track.
“Not many people have that,” Nick jokes.
He said his favorite picture is one of Sinatra given to him by his father-in-law that hangs in a back corner in the dining room.
It’s framed along with a Frank Sinatra autograph signed during Sinatra’s visit to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Another is a painting of Sinatra, which hangs near the jukebox.
“It’s a painting of Sinatra with a green background that has been here a long time, since the early ‘70s, which was given to my uncle when he was running Leo’s,” Nick says. “It was in lieu of payment. There was a guy here who didn’t have any money and said ‘You know, I’m hungry, and I am an artist,’ and he painted a portrait and brought it in the next day to pay for his dinner.”
“We hear that Grandpa fed a lot of people in the ’70s when people were hard on their luck,” Grace says.
“We had people come in and say the economy was bad, and they just wanted a beer and a meal, and that our grandfather didn’t charge them, and they will always remember that,” Nick says.
“Sinatra’s music and the growth and experiences of the people who come to Leo’s mirror one another,” Nick says. “It is the perfect marriage. You have love, you have heartbreak, like in the song ‘A Very Good Year,’ he talks about his life, and it mirrors the lives of people coming in here.”—Marilyn Baer