The back room at Carmine Lonardo's Specialty Meats & Deli is gleaming and quiet. The space where the Lonardo family normally cranks out 10,000 pounds of sausage a week hasn't seen a speck of meat since most of the Lonardo clan embarked on a two-week European cruise, leaving Carmine, the 54-year-old son and namesake of the shop's founder, and his wife to mind the store in their absence.
The younger Carmine Lonardo explains that his brother, Tony, who's the main sausage-maker in the family, worked overtime to stock the fridges and freezers with fresh sausage before taking his vacation, so that individual customers and wholesale clients wouldn't run out of product before his return. Carmine's sisters, Louise and Maria, are also in Europe, and the little market, deli and butcher shop is also quieter than usual as a result.
"I wish they were here to talk to you, too," Carmine says. "They could probably add a lot more than what I'm telling you."
But Carmine has no problem talking long and passionately about his parents and the family business, more than making up for his siblings' absence. His parents came to Denver from Campobasso, Italy, in 1956. The elder Carmine (pronounced Carmin, then and now) was a meat-cutter at a large processing plant for many years before it closed in the 1970s. That's when the couple opened the butcher shop and deli in Lakewood.
This Carmine was in his early teens when the shop opened, but he says that nobody remembers the exact date of when it did. "We all say 1978, but I think it was actually ’76," he recalls.
Over the following decades, the family built up the business into a market loaded with Italian pantry items; a bakery where about 80 to 90 percent of the cookies and pastries are made in-house; a sandwich shop serving classic Italian subs, stromboli, sides and sausage rolls (Carmine credits Carbone's, which became Lechuga's, with the invention of the distinctly Denver savory canoli called a Little Devil); and a butcher shop specializing in beef and pork cuts.
But most important is the sausage. "People come in from Fort Collins and Pueblo just for our Italian sausage," Carmine explains. "It's been our number-one seller since the very beginning — no question."
In fact, Carmine Lonardo's counts some 200 metro Denver restaurants as clients, selling mild and spicy Italian sausage to pizzerias, Italian joints and other eateries, and customizing other sausages for select accounts.
So the family vacation is a big deal — and the reason for Tony's extra work before the trip rapidly becomes apparent. People all over Denver have come to rely on the quality and consistency of Carmine Lonardo's Italian sausage, and a gap in availability wouldn't go over well.
Carmine himself has been cutting meat and working the counter since the store opened, with a four-year gap when he left for college after graduating from Wheat Ridge High School in the mid-’80s, so managing the family business has become ingrained in his very being, despite the long hours and physical toll. "It takes four of us to run the place," he says. "It's hard work, but it's fun."
In addition to Tony, Louise and Maria, Carmine's two sons also work in the store when they're not in school; one's currently out of town on an internship, and the other is working alongside his dad until he heads to college in the fall. Carmine's three nieces and nephews also put in time here, as does his mother.
"Mom still comes in, and she's 78 — she's one tough lady," he says, explaining that she can still throw around fifty-pound tubs of ground pork like nobody else.
Lakewood and Wheat Ridge have become refuges for Italian-owned butcher shops, delis, restaurants and bakeries over the past few decades, as north Denver's Italian communities moved to west-side suburbs for bigger houses and newer schools. Carmine says those communities values the service that he and his family provide, but he's also seeing new, younger customers come in, attracted by the shop's artisan reputation, as well as East Coast transplants looking for a taste of their home towns. And he thinks people are cooking more, too, turned off by the high price of restaurant food but still interested in using quality ingredients. "You see that trend more now," Carmine says. "People eating at home because of the cost and disappointment of restaurants."
And business continues to grow, even if it's a little unpredictable. The shop is open every day but Sunday, and while family members wanted to close one other day of the week, too, they've never been able to see a pattern in which days of the week and times of the day are slowest. "We've been trying to figure that out for 43 years," Carmine notes.
As if to prove his point, a line of customers materializes in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, and Carmine excuses himself to help ring in orders and package cuts of meat. There are construction workers in yellow vests grabbing sandwiches or stromboli to go (the Fat Boy, which Carmine says he named after himself, is a popular item), businessmen stopping in to pick up 28-day-aged tomahawk steaks for the grill (the butcher counter exclusively stocks Piedmontese beef raised in Nebraska, which is cut and aged in-house), and groups of women coming in for a late lunch at one of several tables in the dining wing of the deli that was added several years ago, nearly doubling the size of the space.
When he returns from helping these people, Carmine talks about the future of the business his father founded on the principal of "Give people a good product and a good price, and you'll sleep well at night." He says to imagine the elder Carmine (who passed away in 2014) saying this in the thick accent that he never lost after more than fifty years away from Italy. The son of the founder says that his own sons show a head for business and technology, and he hopes to pass on the store to the third generation of Lonardos some day, but he understands if another trade or profession is more appealing.
Modern butcher shops and "craft" sausage makers are in vogue as a new generation of chefs embrace the old ways. But Carmine Lonardo's has kept up with the trends — or was always ahead of them in the first place. "My dad was ahead of his time," Carmine explains. "He created bacon and ground beef patties back when we first opened."
That bacon-sirloin blend is still on the butcher board, even as this style of burger pops up in trendy restaurants around town. And the pork sold across the butcher counter comes from Tender Belly, a newer Denver company dedicated to sourcing quality meat from small farms. There's even a Carmine Lonardo's Instagram account to highlight all the good food.
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Carmine junior, like Carmine senior, enjoys teasing customers across the counter as he helps them select cuts of meat or the right sandwich for lunch. But social-media users, attracted by the deli's high ratings online, often don't know the family or get Carmine's sense of humor. A recent Yelper complained when he was chided for requesting mayonnaise on his Italian combo sandwich. After that, Carmine got an earful from the son who monitors the shop's social-media accounts, and let his father know that not everyone shares the same sense of humor.
"I was only teasing, but new customers don't always know that," Carmine admits, then adds, still only half-serious, "But you don't put mayo on an Italian combo!"
The original Carmine Lonardo couldn't have said it better himself.
Carmine Lonardo's Specialty Meats & Deli is located at 7585 West Florida Avenue in Lakewood and is open from 8 a.m to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Call 303-985-3555 for more details.