A family tradition of four generations
STEUBENVILLE — Federico Foods isn’t a convenience store to stop by for a gallon of milk and a loaf of Wonder bread.
This is a fourth-generation family owned local business offering authentic imported Italian foods, a tradition of more than 90 years.
Faithful patrons know what’s there — everything from pasta, cheese, cured meats, olive oil, spices, and bread and rolls baked fresh daily to Italian hoagies made to order, tomato items, wine, sweets and more.
Observant customers awaiting orders for prosciutto, capicola, olives, havarti cheese or other items from the deli can spot evidence of the store’s longevity.
Atop the deli counter, for instance, is a framed photo of third-generation store owner Lenny Federico as an 11-year-old standing next to his father, Emanuel Federico, second-generation store owner. Next to son and father is Mike DiNovo of DiNovo’s Chrysler-Dodge dealership in downtown Steubenville.
The trio poses in front of the dealership on Third Street, in the immediate background the die-hard Federico store truck with a longevity all its own.
“The picture is promoting DiNovo’s service department that helped keep that truck on the road for 27 years,” Lenny said of the photo taken by Chrysler as part of a company magazine promotion. “At that point in time, that truck was 35 to 40 years old. We used it until it didn’t run anymore,” Lenny said.
“It was the truck that just kept going.”
Such memories come to mind as the 72-year-old reviews the history of the store — a business, yes, but what he describes as a hobby he loves — and the family evolution of it.
Lenny’s father, Emanuel, was born in the town of Pettorano sul Gizio in the Abruzzo region of Italy, one of five children. “He came over here in 1910,” Lenny said. Lenny’s grandfather, Leonardo Federico, started the business in downtown Steubenville in 1930 — “in the 300 block of South Seventh Street next to St. Anthony’s Church.”
The area was home to Steubenville’s Italian community as other areas of the city were settled by various nationalities to make the city the melting pot it was.
“At the time all Italians were there. It was Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and we even had Ninth Street. There was the Ninth Street extension that came to a dead end and then if you wanted to go up toward Ohio Valley Hospital, that was Spring Avenue, all Italians,” Lenny said.
His grandfather was a leathersmith by trade. “He had a little shop there in what’s that grassy knoll today next to St. Anthony’s Church right in the heart of all these Italians, and somehow or another he got involved in some food items and had them in the back of this little truck that he owned, and he drove around every day, and he started selling food items,” Lenny explained.
Cheese, macaroni and some olive oil were among his wares.
“That was the first brick in the wall,” Lenny said. “That lasted only a short period of time. My father got involved and then at that point, he was on the 100 block of South Sixth.”
What began with selling items out of the back of a panel truck morphed into a shop. “Little by little, it started with the shoemaker, then he went into the food industry, that took off, and he did better with that (food),” he continued.
“To make a long story short, the food took off and he left the leather behind, and he ended up with his son in the 100 block of South Sixth in a storeroom there,” Lenny said. “We were at 139 S. Sixth St. for years.”
While there was the built-in customer base with an Italian-oriented store in the midst of Steubenville’s Italian population, its support extended well beyond that.
“In those days, everything was in downtown Steubenville,” Lenny reminisced. “We had over 45,000 people here, we had employment, people lived downtown even before the days of the automobile so everybody walked. They went here to buy cheese, down the street to buy a piece of meat, to Junedale’s — it was a different world, absolutely.”
His father’s Italian food market offered dried cured meats, Italian cheeses and various other items. “We had an Italian theme — ‘100 percent,'” he said. “We didn’t sell Wonder bread and milk and all that. People came there to buy a piece of cheese, a case of macaroni, some olive oil, tomato items,” Lenny said of the store where he grew up.
“There was my father, my mother (Sofia) and me, and we had a person or two to help out,” Lenny said. “I was very small when we ended up transitioning from South Seventh to South Sixth. I was very small. I used to sleep on the desk, that’s how small I was,” he said, gesturing to the original desk he’s seated at in his office at the store now located at 3911 Sunset Blvd. “I think he bought this for $20 from Army Surplus. See the color?” He points to the signature olive shade.
As he grew up in the business, Lenny said he had ideas.
“I always had this bug in me that we could do better, so we moved at one point from 115 S. Sixth to 139 S. Sixth, it was a little bit bigger storeroom, a little more modern, we had parking for three to four cars — I just had this bug all along I could do something especially in lieu of the fact that everybody was driving a car by then,” he said of his thought process to serve the driving and walking consumer base.
“Then in the early 1970s, things started coming this way (to the West End). People had a car. The mall opened, so in the early ’70s people started to come out to the mall more than the downtown,” Lenny continued. “In 1978, we bought this property here, and we’ve been here ever since.
The “here” was a corner of John Scott Highway and Sunset Boulevard where Winky’s, a hamburger fast-food chain, stood.
“We knocked the building down and built this,” he said, noting the Federico’s of today opened on the second Saturday in January 1979. The store was open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Today it’s open Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It has 22 part-time employees.
By 1988, the building expanded to accommodate other businesses.
“This is all just expanded on what we had there but every line is more elaborate,” he said of the difference in the store of then and now. “It’s more modern. People can park their car in the front. It’s easy to get in. We bake bread and buns every day — five or six different types with classic Italian, Tuscany 20 ounces, the French, the round and the flat Sicilian.” There are sausage and regular rolls.
A big hit are the Italian subs, a popular item ordered and made on the store’s freshly baked bread.
“This all started back in the ’60s,” Lenny begins the hoagie story. “I remember, and this is a true story. A guy comes running in the store one day. He was late for work in one of the steel plants. He runs in and gets a loaf of bread and went behind the counter and said to my mother, ‘Can you throw some lunch meat on here? I am in a big hurry. I am late.’ So my mother, being the type that she is, she didn’t settle for just throwing some lunch meat and putting the bread back. She had to fix this thing, put some roasted peppers on there. Some provolone from Italy, spices. This was the actual beginning of this whole thing. He goes to work. He was in a hurry. Mom said, ‘Pay tomorrow when you have more time.’ He comes running in and paid and said, ‘Listen — I’ll take two of these this time,’ and that was the beginning,” he said of a sandwich tradition of several decades that has endured.
It is of appeal to a make-it-for-me clientele because “older Italians make their own.” It has gone up in price through the years — from $1.99 to today’s $11 — but never down in popularity.
That the valley at one time was once so prosperous with its varied manufacturing base and had attracted different nationalities to a promise of a job in 14 days constitutes “one reason why we’re still here,” reasons Lenny, who noted the store generates “a ton of action” from across the river.
While the family business involves Lenny’s wife, Pam, it also has a fourth-generation presence in their son Lenny.
A call to the store to speak to Lenny prompts the which-one response — “Big Lenny or Little Lenny?”
“My wife and I have been pretty lucky over the years,” Lenny said. “We have been able, as a family, to keep our thumb on things here seven days a week. We keep our thumb on the thing. It’s like a hobby. I love it,” he said.
“It’s unique, and we Italians always have a smile on our face,” he said.
Customers come for what they don’t find elsewhere, according to Lenny.
“They come for cheese, salami. You can buy salami anywhere, but we have the real stuff here. All the cheeses, the macaroni, we carry four or five brands from Italy where you won’t find that anywhere else so the pasta is good. We have our own label on tomato products here, the Federico brand — puree, sauce, crushed, whole. People love these items. We’ve always had a private label on the tomato items.”
Christmas is especially busy.
“At Christmas there are a lot of items that are traditional to the Christmas holiday,” he said. That includes unusual fish items, among them baccala.
“We deal with a lot of older people here, but over the years things have changed and not always for the better, but like I say, we have our thumb on the thing and Lenny has done a lot,” he said. “He has a knack for putting in front of people what may be unique but always in the Italian eye so he has expanded some,” the elder Lenny said. “When I was on Sixth Street, I did some newer things and came up here (Sunset Boulevard) and he grew up here,” he said of his son, who started college majoring in accounting.
“He hated it,” the elder Lenny said, “He couldn’t stand sitting at a desk so he changed his major to business management, and he came in here so he does things a little more modernistic, too.”
That would include the store having a Facebook presence, for example.
Just as his father early on had ideas about the business, ditto for son Lenny, who later into his college studies embraced an interest to join the family business — familiar surroundings where he had helped out growing up.
“I went to study accounting in college. I just learned really fast that I was not going to be able to sit at a desk for eight hours a day,” he said, explaining that he helped out at the store before college and switched his major at Robert Morris to business management.
“Right toward the end is when I started coming back, working weekends and when I mentally thought well, I’d rather do this than anything else,” he said.
It was the right decision apparently as he enjoys being a part of the family business.
“I consider myself extremely lucky — I get along with both of my parents. Some people in some businesses, that doesn’t work out,” he said. “We all get along really good, so it’s good that I get to see them. This is our social hour together, and we live close to each other. Some families, this child moves here and another child moves to a different city, and they see each other at holidays. I get to see my parents seven days a week so it’s nice in that respect,” he said.
Beyond the family interaction opportunity, there the customer interaction he likes, too.
“This is where I see the customers and get to BS every day. It makes the day a lot easier. I’m not sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen. I’d go nuts,” he said.
He has helped bring a new dimension to the business, for example, in the wine offerings.
“People come in, looking for a certain thing. I try to get that for them, and we also got introduced to guy who privately does the wine. He is very intelligent and telling me a few things I don’t know and he brings in wines that are not mass produced. You can’t get them at the chain stores, so he does a wine tasting — well before corona he was doing two or three tastings a year — this year we didn’t get to do any of them,” he said of the 2020 disruption.
There’s also an annual wine show in Youngstown. “We get to go up to that and meet new people and see new items coming out. I try to have a good variety of things that you cannot get at the chain stores. Some we have to have because they are popular, but I try to do my best with this (wine) section. We have to have good quality for the price,” the younger Lenny.
His father respects that insight.
“My father had a winery back years ago so there’s a little bit of something in our blood,” the elder Lenny said of his son’s interest in the wines. “Lenny took it over, and it just seems to me that he just loves fooling with this wine stuff so we keep it all Italianish, all table wines, we don’t have any pop wines over there because it wouldn’t sell here,” he said.
The store has an out-of-town company that labels the wines for them with the Federico label.
“He has some better ideas,” the father said of his son. “We work together. Sometimes we fight and sometimes we laugh.”
Federico Foods has persevered through economic downturns, community changes and a pandemic where they were able to continue operating while following guidelines.
“It’s unique that you have four generations and up to more than 90 years here in a town that’s in an economic decline,” Lenny said.
“This will be the last (generation) because there’s nobody else,” Lenny said. “This is an old-fashioned way to make a living,” he said.
Being in business with the public for so many years means many friendships forged, so many faces familiar.
“Oh sure,” the elder Lenny said. “I was born here 72 years ago. We see a lot of people come and go over the years. It’s the uniqueness of the Italian food – everybody has a smile on their face when they’re eating Italian.
“We have T-shirts made up. On the back it says ‘eat Italian food.’
“That says it all.”