When Al was 18 years old, his father took his wife and children to visit his dying mother in the family home in Sezzi, Italy, leaving Leonoro's in Al's care. They were gone for three months.
"He told me I could keep any of the money I made," Al said. "He said I just had to make sure the restaurant was still there when he got back."
The restaurant still stood when Al welcomed his father home.
Still simmering sauce
In a world where restaurants come and go almost before the paint on their signs dries, Leonoro's still serves a steady flow of customers its made-from-scratch sauce and meatballs from family recipes.
The recipes never change, and the brothers don't believe in shortcuts. They start their sauce with whole tomatoes and the mixture simmers all day long. Every day, they also make lasagna and 40 to 50 pounds of meatballs. They boil about 210 pounds of pasta a week.
"I believe you're better to do one thing well. Our food is always consistent. My dad used to say we had the best spaghetti in town.
"I think the secret to our success is the pride that our parents instilled in us. There's always been a Leonoro at the helm," Al said.
In addition to pasta and meatballs, the menu features three dinner entrees -- veal Parmesan, chicken cacciatore and Italian sausage. Extras include mushroom sauce and white clam sauce. Duchess Bakery supplies the Italian bread served with meals or as garlic toast.
Naysayers warned the brothers that the Olive Garden would put them out of business when the Italian restaurant came to town. Al didn't worry. "The chains can't do ethnic foods," he said.
He did worry when low-carbohydrate diets were the rage, but the customers still came. They added whole-wheat pasta, available by special request, for carb-conscious patrons.
They've survived recessions and tough times, partially because their overhead is low. They own the building, Al and Joe are the cooks and they keep the number of employees low, including one server who has worked for them for 31 years, and another for 23 years. Al's son Mike and Joe's daughter Alicia both joined the family business after earning college degrees.
Alicia worked briefly at the statehouse right after her graduation. Mike graduated with a degree in sports management, but plunged right into the sauce-making kitchen.
"It's always a good idea to have a college degree, but I knew I'd come back to the restaurant," he said.
The brothers work hard and play hard, taking several family vacations together every year. They close the restaurant for two or three vacation weeks a year. Customers who have moved from Charleston call to check if the restaurant will be open when they return for visits.
It's that kind of place.
"It's been a good life. There are nights when all the tables are full and I know everyone at all the tables," Joe said. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather do."
Reach Julie Robinson at jul...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.