It’s hard to begin a sentence with “In West Philadelphia,” because well, you know. But that’s how this begins…
In West Philadelphia, Overbook specifically on the corner of 64th and Carlton, once resided an Italian restaurant called Lebano’s. I believe this place to be to be my first memory. My brother’s probably, too.
I was dismayed that I could find nothing online about this institution, as my family and I had been talking about it recently. With the ample amount of time now on my hands, I decided I would start writing about the restaurant. When I began this project, I simply wanted to record the memories my family and I had at Lebano’s. But the more I talked to people, I realized this was taking on a new life.
My family helped me piece together memories and facts about this restaurant. Nick Micozzie, former state representative and distant relative of mine, has been a great deal of help in putting this information together. It has been a labor of love compiling this together, and I’m grateful for my family for responding to my many texts and phone calls.
I would also like to thank the folks at Filitalia International, home of the History of Italian Immigration Museum on East Passyunk, for their help, and those from the Facebook group Growing up in Overbook. Thank you to all who participated.
I am no historian, but there was a brief time in college I was a journalism major, so I’m putting those journalism classes to use. This is vastly different than anything else I’ve done on my blog before, and I hope you enjoy a look into a community on the corner of 64th and Carlton.
I would also like to mention that this will be a two-part (or possibly multi-part) series, as I have more interviews and information coming soon.
Italy has been on my mind as of recent. I have never been. It is a place, that when I do visit, I want to do it right. When I say right, I mean visiting for an extended period of time, seeing where my relatives are from, indulging in every food and bottle of wine available. My dad’s family is from Sicily, and my mom’s family is from Abruzzo, specifically Chieti.
I have a bit of an obsession with the “Philly Italian”, something I talk about at ad nauseam. Perhaps it is the desire to continue with tradition. Yes, I did grow up in the land of Delco. But thanks to my grandparents and extended family, we were brought-up in a very “Philly Italian” atmosphere. If you’d like even better insight, Lorraine Ranalli’s book Gravy Wars provides understanding into Italian-American culture in Philadelphia.
What is important is to understand the community around this restaurant. It’s necessary in order to properly paint the picture. While we often think of South Philly of the mecca of Italian immigrants, West Philly also had a large population.
Lebano’s was the definition of old school. For example, only men were allowed downstairs at the bar area in the early years.
The name of the owner/founder was Camillo Lebano. Although they called him Tom, many times he was called Camille (imagine my surprise/delight!). Many recall waitresses named Carmella, Queenie (the cook), and Phyllis. My mimi would sometimes go into the kitchen and help Queenie.
During this era, many patrons lived in the same Italian neighborhood about a block away from each other. This includes the Abate (my mom’s family), Micozzi(e), Migatz families. My poppy (grandfather) grew up down the street from Lebano’s. His grandfather, father and most of his relatives were there often, and according to him, the owner’s were like family. It was a place my great-great uncles and great grandfather would frequent, and they called it “The Saloon”.
My grandparents met in West Philly, when they were both teenagers. My mimi (grandmother) was Irish, and my poppy (grandfather). They quickly fell in love and wanted to marry. Unfortunately, when seeking her permission to wed, the “strega nona” (Italian witch grandmother) of the neighborhood forbade them to marry, but they defied her magical orders. They were married for over 50 years, until she passed this winter. I think about her everyday.
My grandparents and my family introduced Lebano’s into my young, new life. From what my family tells me, we could always count on seeing someone we knew from the neighborhood, or a friend of a friend who was told they had to try Lebano’s food.
Nearby was and still is a Roman Catholic Church called St. Donato. This following information about St. Donato comes directly from Nick Micozzie:
The St. Donato story has its roots in the thousands upon thousands of Italian
immigrants who came to the United States in search of better lives. As their numbers grew, the need for a parish if their own grew also.
It was Bishop John Neumann (1811-1860), named Bishop of in Philadelphia in 1852, who in 1854 set in motion measures that addressed the pressing needs of growing numbers of immigrants from my nations. His actions led to the creation of St. Mary Magdalene de Pizza in South Philadelphia in 1855. The first national parish for Italians in America. The building had been a Methodist Church that Bishop Neumann purchased. He was canonized St. John Neumann by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.
Ultimately, the steps initiated by Bishop Neumann were further by Archbishop Patrick J. Ryan in 1906. It was he who authorized the creation of St. Donato Parish as a national parish for Italians in 1910. Upon that decree, Rev. Pietro Michetti, who became a Monsignor years later, the parish’s first pastor, born and educated in Italy and who with the aid of thousands of fellow Italians, among many experienced builders, such as stone masons, skilled artisans, was charged with beginning construction of St. Donato Church, the structure we know today as the lower church of St. Francis Cabrini Chapel, since she worshipped there.
Immediately before being named pastor of St. Donato, Father Michetti had been pastor of Our Lady of Angels Parish in West Philadelphia. Construction of St. Donato’s began on May 24, 1910 on land whose history can be traced to 1877 and that was acquired from the heirs of William Keichine by Archbishop Ryan for the sum of $1.00, but encumbered with a mortgage of $3,300. The Lower Church was completed remarkably by the middle of July of that year at a cost of $7,000 and founded officially on July 16, 1910, the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
I remember it always being loud and full of life. This was most likely the first place and time I ever heard, “Look at that faccia bella!“
Cocktails were served on the first floor downstairs, and dinner on the second floor upstairs. The second floor was pure magic. I remember hues of the restaurants – blues and browns, like the color theme of 500 Days of Summer. At least that what my memory tells me. Also, the wooden chairs, and of course, the red-and-white, checkered table cloths. I can still picture three-year-old me walking into the restaurant. Past the downstairs bar, with the men sitting on their high stools. Was it musty? No, perhaps not. I can’t be certain of that. That’s the thing about memory, it’s fickle.
And then there was the dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter was mystical, as it brought wine up from the bar. I can still vividly picture it, and dreamt about where it was going. The stories that dumbwaiter could tell, from hearing gossip on the first floor, and transporting it upstairs. When I asked my family for their Lebano’s memories, they all mentioned the dumbwaiter. In fact, everyone I spoke to remembers the dumbwaiter fondly.
I’m sure by now you’re wondering about the food…
The menus were photocopied and were changed each night. While the menus were different every night, you could always get spaghetti or “short macs” – ziti or rigatoni. They served macaronis and meatballs, delicious chicken cutlets (my aunt declares ‘the best I have ever had in my life’), and a salad with oil and vinegar dressing, Italian tuna, pieces of sharp provolone, oil and vinegar. My pop-pop (great-grandfather) always enjoyed their rice pudding. My dad said after his grandmother (my nana) who came off-the-boat from Sicily’s cooking, this was the best Italian food he’s ever had (it’s certainly worth nothing mom’s cooking is incredible, too).
I remember playing with the salt and pepper shakers, the parmesan cheese, the cracked red pepper. I can still taste the spaghetti and gravy. I can’t think of it too hard though, or I’ll forget. I need to let it rest on the tip of my tongue.
My poppy describes it as, “Everyone was like family and the food was like your mom was in the kitchen.” It was perfect.
The memories of others….
In search of even more information, Filitalia pointed me to the direction of an Overbrook Facebook group. I asked if anyone in the group had any memories, photos, or stories they would be willing to share. I was not prepared for the response (at time of publishing, the post is currently at over 80 comments). You’ll notice that the dumbwaiter is a reoccurring character…
- Without a doubt my favorite restaurant of all times. They had a kitchen the size of a large bathroom but were able to churn out consistent, fresh, delicious food. I miss them all the time. I remember the dumbwaiter, the old marble top tables, and that vintage brass cash register sitting in the corner. – Louis B.
- Great food. Carmella was the waitress and did a great job. Their food was excellent and cooked to perfection. The bar was downstairs. – Eleanor P.
- I remember the smells of Italian cooking when I started to walk up the stairs! As a Jewish boy I just had to find me an Italian girl and I did! Great memories. – Joel B.
- I grew up the next block over 64th and Pearl St. Hands down some of the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten.
- Definitely remember the smells. My grandmother lived on Simpson and we went there frequently especially as a little kid, as my parents were separated and my dad and grandmother took me. My dad also played his lottery there they sold tickets in the front by the bar. Of course I remember the dumb waiter. – Frank S.
- My fond memories are having the best breakfasts ever there! Just had to wait till 10 or 11:00. Definitely worth the wait – Stuart D.
- It was great. The dumb waiter was a riot. They would yell down the drinks and up they come on it. Very generous they gave away so much food. Big hearted people. – Loretta W.
- I was a teacher at Saint Donato’s in the late 70s. Many teachers would go there every day for lunch. They would only charge a dollar for a delicious lunch. It was wonderful. They were wonderful generous people. May they all Rest In Peace. – Nadia P.
- As a kid I watched the teachers from St. Donato’s walk down Carlton St. to eat lunch there. When my future wife found out that I lived up the street she made me take her there for dinner. It was the best chicken Parmesan she ever had. We went once a week while it was still open. – Larry F.
- My grandmother Carmella worked there as a waitress. My family went there all the time. The salad with the tuna was my favorite and I always wanted to ride on the dumbwaiter. Great memories. – Tina L.
- My grandmother and grandfather took me their as a baby; it wasn’t till years later I was sitting down upstairs with friends and relived the memories. It seam so big as a child..that split pea soup keep me coming back for years as an adult..I sure miss it..and still try to recreate the soup my self – Tony D.
- The best food I ever eat yin my whole life I lived at 319 N 64 St. right across the street in there all day every day. Boy, I really miss those days, nice to talk about, but not the same. – Rick M.
- My mom would take me there for lunch because my dad was at work and always said don’t tell dad lol. I loved their pork chops and stewed tomato’s when they had it. Great memories. – Valerie S.
- In the early 70’s I ate there on Fridays with my boss George Anastasia, and I saw all the teachers Larry Fadgen. Aunt Jean ran it then along with her daughter Phyllis and SIL Joe Pepsi. Their food was the best from soups, sandwiches, dinners and the special dinners, there will never be another Lebano’s. – Angela T.
- My mother (Angie) was a waitress there for years. The sweetest, nicest people. Jean, Phyllis, Pepsi, Queenie, & Carmella. On Friday and Saturday evenings the line would go down the stairs. I spent so much of my childhood in there, yep, playing with the dumb waiter and when they were so busy, that thing would fly up and down. – Carol C.
Tradition and Community
Restaurants come and go, and are forgotten, but Lebano’s is still on the mind of many. I will continue doing Craig LaBan-level research to uncover more. If you have any additional information or edits to this story, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org