By DALE CASTLE
April, 23, 2014
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – I sat in my car on a crisp March morning at 910 E. Fifth St., in an area most of us call Little Italy or the Northend.
The three story brick building that occupies that address is still in pretty good shape when you consider it has been through a 107 years of our hot, humid summers and harsh winters. Just as the early morning sun crept over the nearby roof tops and began to warm the east side of the old structure, the man I was waiting for drove up. Pete Mesh shook my hand and said welcome to the North End Deli as we walked in the front door.
Pete has lived in the Northend for all but one of his twenty nine years. He has many fond memories of growing up in the area during a time when Facebook was nonexistent.
“We played basketball on a goal in my driveway.” Pete said. “It was fun riding our bikes down alleys and through yards. We rode all over Columbus Park and the City Market. On exceptionally hot days, the fire department turned on [fire] hydrants so the kids could play in the cool water. It was free, so we spent all day outside until the street light came on, which is when we had to be home.”
Pete spent a great deal of time in this very building as a kid. It was also a deli back then, but since 1921, it was known as Lasala’s.
“My best friend was Joe Ben Lasala,” Pete remembers. “His father and grandfather owned the deli. We were in the store just about every day hanging out and getting something to eat.”
He was sitting in the deli one day when Joe’s father, Albert, asked him if he would like help out by running the register for a while since they were short on help that day. That went well and they started using him from time to time for other jobs such as wrapping bread and running the deli bar. He helped make po’ boy, rich boy supreme sandwiches. Slowly but surely, he learned the ins and outs of the business.
I asked Pete if he ever dreamed about owning the deli back then. No, not in a million years was his quick reply. But a person certainly changes as you get older and Pete was no exception.
He had just sold his car-hauling business in 2012 and knew that Lasala’s was on a down swing. He asked some of the customers what they thought was the problem. Most of them said that in 90 years, the Lasala family hadn’t made any changes. They opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 3 p.m. Their customer base was slowly declining.
“The deli had been very successful for year and years,” Pete said. ” I don’t think they wanted to take a chance and change traditions and I can’t blame them. I was looking for a new business and had nothing to lose, so I asked them if they would consider selling it me.”
They did and Pete took ownership of the deli about 16 months ago. He knew that the projects had cleared out and the neighborhood was definitely attracting small businesses and young professionals. He would have to update the deli to be successful.
He fixed the lighting, painted the walls, put in new heating and cooling and created more room by rearranging counter space. A beautiful oak bar with glass blocks and lights in Italian colors has replaced the old counter. Patrons have been able to watch the Super Bowl, March Madness and other sporting events because of the addition of three big screen televisions.
The deli makes its own Italian steaks, tenderloins and roast beef. Everything is grilled on a flat top grill or dropped in a fryer. The meat is tenderized upon arrival. Fresh Roma bakery bread is delivered everyday. The rich boy, po’ boy supreme sandwiches are iconic. They’ve been there forever. Pete didn’t change them at all. He uses the same bread, same meat and cheese.
A few new items have been added to the menu, including a reuben sandwich, hot Italian beef sandwiches and the Fifth Street club sandwich.
“Joe and Albert Lasala worked with me the first month to get me off on the right foot,” Pete said. “Gabrielle Lamore, who worked at Lasala’s for about 10 years, has been with me since day one. She’s my right hand woman. I don’t know what I’d do with out her.”
In the short time since the deli’s opening, business has nearly doubled. It’s a nice family establishment where you can bring your wife and eat good food, have a glass of wine and hang out for a while.
I asked Pete why he changed the name of such a well known eatery.
“I wanted a fresh start and statistics show that 85 percent of businesses that are failing when people buy them continue to fail when they keep the same name,” was his reply.
I noticed an old photo of a boxer on the wall surrounded by adoring kids. I asked Pete who he was.
“That’s Rocky Graziano,” Pete said. “There use to be a boxing club next door. Rocky stopped by and posed with several of the Northend kids including my father and Frank Deluna. Frank gave me the picture. It was taken about 1954.”
Future plans call for murals to be painted on the front of the building and both sides, a patio on the east side of the building so people can sit outside with about 12 tables with awnings to provide shade. Pete is very thankful for the Italian-Americans and businesses in the area that were so supportive when he started the deli. He has a tremendous amount of respect and love for the neighborhood.
“It would have been very difficult to start it alone,” Pete said. “They were a tremendous help.”
Like the old building, Pete is built on a solid foundation. I think he will be around for a long time just like the Lasala’s were. The North End Deli is open from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m on Friday and Saturday with the bar open until 1:30 a.m. and from 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. on Sunday. When the patio is installed, the deli will be open later in the evenings for dinner.