CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When something works for 95 years, why mess with success?
Brothers Al and Joe Leonoro have been making spaghetti sauce and meatballs the way their Italian father and uncles taught them for 40 years. The sauce and meatballs form the backbone of Leonoro's Spaghetti House menu. Servers' shirts read, "Get sauced at Leonoro's."
They get to the restaurant every morning at 7 a.m. to start the sauce, which simmers all day and is ready to serve by 5 p.m. "I'd like for it to sit a bit before we serve it, but we don't have time," Al said.
They keep the pasta menu simple, with spaghetti, rigatoni, linguine and ravioli and meatballs available in three portion sizes, priced between $9.50 and $12. The same sauce smothers lasagna, stuffed shells and manicotti, or customers may substitute marinara sauce. Their Uncle Joe developed the distinctive house dressing, a tomato-based oil and vinegar mix that is by far their most popular salad dressing.
The Leonoros' Uncle Joe and Uncle Frank opened the family business as a confectionery, which was similar to today's convenience store, on Broad Street in 1915. They sold staples like milk and bread and also ice cream and fountain drinks.
"Uncle Joe would cook sauce in the back room. People would come in and smell the pasta, and request some," Joe said. "They started serving pasta."
In 1932, the brothers concentrated on the restaurant business.
An enlarged photo in Leonoro's current location, 1507 Washington St., E., shows the brothers serving customers behind an ornate marble counter. The store sat on the former Broad Street until 1973, when it was demolished to make room for the Interstate 64 exit ramp.
"That was actually a good move for us. There wasn't much seating in the old place," Al said. "It was hard on Dad, though. He didn't like change."
Al and Joe's father, Umberto, was 25 years younger than his brothers, and frequently mistaken as a son to one of them. "People tell us they knew our grandfather, meaning our uncle," Joe said. "We don't bother to correct them. Dad was so much younger than his brothers."
Al and Joe's grandparents moved to the mines near Cabin Creek from Italy and brought siblings, including Joe and Frank, with them. Umberto was born here. Their father worked in the mines, until the unrest accompanying the mines unionization spooked his wife and they moved back to Italy, taking 18-month-old Umberto with them.
His older brothers Joe and Al stayed to run the confectionery. Umberto was 19 when Italy entered World War II, and his older brothers told him to come back to the U.S., where he was a citizen.
"He couldn't speak any English, but was quickly drafted in the Army. He spent five and a half years in the Army, speaking little English and made all kinds of friends," Al said. "That's the kind of guy he was. Very happy-go-lucky. He was well-loved."
After his stint in the Army, Umberto came home to Charleston and ran Leonoro's Spaghetti House with his brothers, until they died in the mid-1960s, their deaths just a year apart. Umberto's sons Al and Joe joined the family business in their teens, and haven't left yet.
"In 1968, I was 16 years old when I starting working for Dad," said Al, who's 58. "He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. I looked at him and wondered how he was doing it. Now, 40 years later, I'm doing it, too."
Joe, 52, followed suit, helping out in the restaurant after school. Both Al and Joe attended Morris Harvey College, now the University of Charleston, and scheduled their classes around the restaurant hours.
"I felt responsible and didn't want to go out of town for college," Joe said. "The family and the restaurant have always been our first priorities."