I pick up a triangular block of a light yellow colored cheese from the refrigeration floor case. I bring the cheese close to my nose to smell the pungent aroma that is the alluring scent of Tenuta’s extra sharp provolone. I pull it away to see the familiar logo and tag line: Tenuta’s – A Kenosha Tradition. I grin at the cheese and murmur, “you’re always my favorite.”
Tenuata’s is an unassuming one-story orange brick building whose shelves are densely packed from floor to ceiling with the bottles, cans and packages of the staples of Italian cooking. While busy during the week, the weekends find the store bustling with customers rolling their carts through the narrow aisles, ordering the cheeses, meats and prepared salads that fill the air with their tantalizing smells and stocking up on their liquor & beer needs.
I ask second generation owner Ralph Tenuta about the variety of cheeses and the aging process. I tell him I am really interested in hearing about the 325 pound chunk of cheese hanging from the ceiling. Family ownership in Tenuta’s is tradition that started decades ago and continues to this day.
It was 1920 and John N. Tenuta left his native Italy to fulfill a dream of owning a business and seeking fortune in the United States. After meeting and marrying his wife Lydia, his dream was realized when Tenuta’s Delicatessen opened in 1950 in a building that was not much larger than a two car garage. Together they served sundaes, malts and deli meats along with other grocery and non-grocery items. Through the years as the deli continued to expand, John’s son Ralph became the chief promoter of the store, eventually taking it over from his father.
My family has been traveling to Tenuta’s for three generations to savor the epicurean delight of fresh quality meats, cheeses and other Italian favorites. Our favorites included garlic flavored genoa salami that may or may not be heartily crusted with black pepper, capicola (an Italian cold cut that is dry-cured from whole pork shoulder or neck) edged with crushed red pepper to shock your tongue, sharp or mild provolone cheese and jars of roasted red peppers.
Every year when I was a child my family hosted our annual Christmas Eve party. We laid out plates of homemade lasagna, meatballs, hot Italian sausage, braciole, garlic bread, olives and antipasto, as well as Tenuta’s meats and cheeses and melon slices wrapped in prosciutto. I was always excited knowing I was traveling to Tenuta’s with my Dad in anticipation not only of the upcoming party but the smell of the meats and cheeses that would make my mouth water and hair stand on end the instant we opened the door.
I drive east on 52nd St. with the front windows of my Nissan Altima rolled down halfway. The sun is shining as I pass businesses, restaurants and homes on both the north and south side of this suburban-to-urban route. I cross through the intersection of 39th Ave. and look for Tenuta’s signature green, white and red sign that stands feet away from the curb with its digital display highlighting the specials of the day.
I turn right into the parking lot and slam on the brake pedal. There are cars everywhere trying to find a parking space. I knew Saturday lunch hour was a great time to shop for some groceries. The outside grill is open and the staff is cooking Polish and Italian sausages, roast beef, chicken, Panini’s and other combo sandwiches for patrons. I head to the back of the parking lot. A driver in a giant SUV has a hard time deciding whether he could fit in, and gives up. “Perfect,” I say.
I walk toward the sidewalk where I see a couple sitting on one of the concrete picnic tables. I make my way past the window where the staff is grilling, round the corner and see more people sitting at the picnic tables in front of the store. Everyone is engaged in light conversation as they eat their hot sandwiches while cars drive by on the other side of the iron fence. I reach for the door and walk into a crowded front entrance where I immediately see Ralph Tenuta standing in front of a cigar case.
Ralph has probably seen me in the store before, but I walk up to him and reintroduce myself.
“I have been coming to your store for over thirty years,” I say, “and my family has been coming here for three generations.”
“Thank you,” Ralph says.
“I am curious to know, from your years of experience, how far away do people travel here to shop at your store?” I ask.
“Oh, they travel from as far away as thirty-five to forty miles.”
“Forty miles – I believe it. I know your store delivers. How far have you delivered your goods?” I ask.
“We have delivered our products to people all over the world.”
“Do you mind if I ask you some questions about some of the cheeses?”
“Well it is a busy Saturday and I might get pulled away, but go ahead,” Ralph says.
“The balls of cheese that hang from the ceiling, is that Auricchio Provolone?”
“No,” Ralph says, “follow me, I will show you the Auricchio.”
Ralph pushes through a small gate behind a cash register and walks towards the refrigerated cases of cheese. He leans down and grabs a wedge of the Auricchio.
“We keep the Auricchio provolone in here,” he says rubbing his finger across the name on the plastic covering the cheese.
A chubby guy dressed in black stands by the case. “Would you like to try a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano?” He says.
“Of course,” I say.
“This is Chef Steve,” Ralph says, “he is here offering samplings.”
“What do you think?” Steve asks.
“I love it!” I say.
“I’m not a chef,” Steve grins, “but Ralph thinks I am. I’m an Italian Culinary Specialist. Not a chef.”
“Boss.” says a man standing next to us.
“Yes,” Ralph says.
“We need more…,”
“If you have any questions, please let me know,” Steve says, “I will be here for a while.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I have to leave for now Tony,” Ralph says as he walks away.
“Go, go,” I say, “I’ll see you soon.”
I walk over to a liquor aisle and grab a small silver cart with a yellow handle. “Time to do some shopping,” I say to myself.
I wheel my cart over the tiled floor to the last aisle on the opposite side of the liquor section. Turning the corner I see Ralph’s cousin Tony Bonanno and immediately strike up a conversation.
“I have been coming to your family store for over thirty years and I just wanted to say thank you for the consistency in the quality of food and service you provide everyone.”
“Thank you!” Tony says.
“I remember as a kid when this store used to be divided with the grocery store on one side and there was a separate entrance to get to the liquor and beer. Every time I walked in here the smell was amazing, then one day I walked in and could not smell it as much anymore because you guys opened up the wall between here and the liquor store; the deli counter used to be back over there.” I point towards the southwest corner of the store. “The smell, I miss the smell.”
“Yeah, we heard that from a lot of people when we removed the wall and expanded,” Tony says, “we were growing and needed the space, what are you going to do?”
“I can understand the decision,” I say, “I’ll see you around.”
I wheel my cart over to the deli counter and set it flush against a liquor cabinet opposite the deli counter.
“Can I help you?” A woman with dark rimmed glasses asks.
“Yes, can I have four links of the Usinger Polish sausage?” I ask.
“I have to grab some from the cooler.”
I admire the 325 pound chunk of provolone cheese hanging off to my right.
“Anything else?” she asks.
“Yes, half a pound of genoa salami and a half a pound of mild provolone.”
After the salami and cheese are weighed, she hands me the packages.
“Thank you, I appreciate it,” I say, “have a good day.”
“Thanks, you too,” she says.
As I approach the cash register I see Tony again and stop him to ask about the 325 pound chunk of provolone hanging by the deli.
“Tony – that chunk of provolone, it ages for 20-24 months?” I ask.
“About 18 months,” Tony says, “we get it from Park cheese.”
“What kind of milk is used?”
“Thanks,” I say and roll my cart to the counter to check out.
“You got everything you need Tony?” Ralph asks.
“Always!” I smile.