More than half a century has passed since Ed Finman’s family sold Leo’s, their legendary deli in Charlotte, but some former patrons can’t let go of its specialty sandwich. A
More than half a century has passed since Ed Finman’s family sold Leo’s, their legendary deli in Charlotte, but some former patrons can’t let go of its specialty sandwich. A stranger recently showed up at Finman’s door near Freedom Park, having driven over from Monroe in search of the Leo’s Special. When a plumber fixing Finman’s sink linked the 78-year-old Charlottean to the defunct deli and told his wife about it, she called the next day and asked for a Leo’s Special, too. A former classmate rang Finman last year to ask if he knew of anyone who might have preserved one of the sandwiches in their freezer.
“People won’t leave me alone, and wonder why I don’t have an apron on,” Finman says with a laugh.
His family sold Leo’s Deli back in 1968, after his father suffered a third heart attack. The business continued for decades, but loyalists missed the original iteration and its legendary Leo’s Special, a seeded rye-bread sandwich towering with corned beef, pastrami, bologna, and salami, plus Swiss cheese. Finman recalls going to the airport with longtime employee George Phifer Jr. to pick up boxes of bread flown in from Jersey City and Brooklyn, and how the smell of the pickling spice for the corned beef saturated the air inside Leo’s.
Launched in 1948 by Finman’s father, Leo’s started with just two tables but quickly grew into a community hub that could sell 400 sandwiches in a single lunch rush. It was a loud, low-ceilinged space with relatively blank, beige walls and simple decor, Finman says, adding, “People were looking at their sandwiches, I hope.” His mother, Helen, directed traffic, often seating strangers together at a table to squeeze everyone in. Finman remembers one of his first jobs — mopping the blue-and-white-checkered floor each night — and, more than 50 years later, he can still recite customers’ names and orders, like Ms. Lucille, a nurse across the street who would come in and order her morning coffee “the color of my skin.”
There is no precise definition of what constitutes a delicatessen. At Leo’s, Finman says that some patrons came in looking for kosher dishes while others were compelled by nostalgia for foods they grew up with in the Northeast, all of which were readily available at the Jewish-run deli. In general, experts agree that delicatessens possess some fundamental components — both prepared foods and take-out items like cold cuts, cheeses, and other similar products in bulk. But the important delis offer more than just specialty foodstuffs from a specific immigrant or ethnic culture. A key part of the equation for a delicatessen is intangible.
“A good deli is a place where the personal service is important,” says Tom Hanchett, a community historian in Charlotte who used to work at the Levine Museum of the New South. “It’s a community place.”
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Delis rose to prominence in this country in the early 20th century, drawing on European traditions and often growing out of small groceries or markets. In New York City in particular, the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants opened delicatessens on virtually every corner, creating community hubs in the process. Places like Katz’s, Second Avenue Deli, and Russ & Daughters became more central to Jewish life than synagogues, according to Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.
Meanwhile, farther South, lunch counters at stores like Woolworth’s and drugstore soda fountains played a similar role to the deli in practically every community across North Carolina. Beginning in the 1860s and lasting for about 100 years, soda fountains were a fixture at the front of drugstores statewide.
At the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, visitors can see an example of a historic pharmacy counter, where a placard explains that pharmacists such as New Bern’s Pepsi-Cola founder Caleb Bradham “learned to advertise their drugstores as social gathering places, where customers could gossip and swap stories while eating ice cream or sipping soda.”
These cultural hubs likely created fertile ground for delis to arrive in North Carolina in the early 1900s. It’s not a big leap from gossiping over ice cream floats at the pharmacy to chatting across tables with a sandwich in hand at a deli. But unlike soda fountains, delis remained a primarily urban phenomenon.
“You couldn’t stick a Jewish deli in a little bitty town — who was going to understand what it was?” explains Marcie Cohen Ferris, a professor emeritus at UNC Chapel Hill and visiting professor at Duke University who previously served as the board president of the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Like Greek entrepreneurs who opened fish camps and working-class diners in North Carolina around the same time, Ferris says, a small number of Jews opened delis to cater to both the fledgling Jewish communities in cities like Asheville and Wilmington as well as gentile urban dwellers, including students. These delis would generally offer specialty Jewish foods like lox, salami, and pickles that were hard to find elsewhere, but probably didn’t seem too unfamiliar to a wider clientele.
“To go to a place that was owned by a Jewish family, that served a corned beef sandwich — it was a touchstone.”
“For folks who lived in a city in North Carolina and maybe worked downtown, to go to a place that was owned by a Jewish family, that served a corned beef sandwich — it was a touchstone,” Ferris says. “It was part of a rise of a modern, industrializing North Carolina.”
Leo’s never could have subsisted on demand from Jewish families alone, Finman says, which numbered only about 600 in Charlotte at the time. Instead, as Ferris explains, they relied on the city’s large population of Northerners familiar with the concept of a delicatessen. That helps explain why Leo’s did brisk business each Hanukkah and Passover, but also why they relied heavily on Christmas.
Delis like Leo’s were also destinations for Jewish travelers and merchants, in part because they offered kosher food, says Leonard Rogoff, historian for Jewish Heritage North Carolina. “My understanding is that usually [delis] began as groceries, and then they put in a few tables for working people who came in,” Rogoff says. “Part of it is a reflection of the demographics of North Carolina. We’ve always been a place of small towns, and delis are often an urban phenomenon — at least the Jewish deli.”
Each city claimed its own beloved delicatessen: Schandler’s in Asheville, Marcus Famous Delicatessen in Raleigh. In Charlotte, a Jewish former prizefighter opened Tenner’s, drawing a crowd of sports enthusiasts. In Chapel Hill, Harry’s Delicatessen offered refuge to civil rights activists and literati alike. “It very well may have been the first restaurant in North Carolina to integrate,” Rogoff says, adding that segregationist firebrand Jesse Helms once denounced Harry’s as a center for rabble-rousers. “These were very cosmopolitan places.”
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Jews weren’t the only ones opening deli-style businesses in the state. With blurry lines for what constitutes a delicatessen, the most obvious examples are venues that self-identified as such. But as Hanchett points out, North Carolina has long been home to markets and shops that are virtually indistinguishable from a deli, save for the name.
“The ones that identify themselves as delis usually have some sort of tie to central Europe,” he says, be that German, Italian, or Jewish.
After several decades of popularity, more traditional Jewish delis began to fall out of favor. That’s partly due to cultural assimilation, as Jews grew more Americanized and Jewish food became more accepted and readily available. It’s also thanks to a decline in city centers as white urbanites fled to the suburbs.
Soda fountains experienced a twin decline in North Carolina. Some persevered, including Newton Grove Drug Co. Soda Fountain & Gift Shop, which has been operating since 1952. Others that appeared later have attempted to function as time capsules, including The Dewberry Deli & Soda Fountain in Cameron, a self-described “re-creation of the corner drugstore” that sold both deli sandwiches, like a thinly sliced corned beef Reuben, and chocolate malts for 30 years before closing recently. Businesses like Brown-Gardiner in Greensboro and Walker’s Soda Fountain in Mount Airy are designed and maintained to feel like stepping into the past.
Conversely, delis made a resurgence in the 1970s in a decidedly different format, Hanchett says. “People were looking for features to include in their increasingly large grocery stores. It’s also tied, in some ways, to the rise in selling prepared food.”
That doesn’t mean that every long-standing deli had closed. Leo’s downsized after the Finmans sold the business, dropping its significant catering operation and eliminating the market to focus on its sandwiches. It persisted into the 21st century, selling pastrami, liverwurst, pumpernickel, and smoked fish, but undoubtedly lost some of its shine — and what made it a delicatessen — in the process.
Like modern soda fountains, some delis attempted to preserve tradition. A local newspaper article from 1976 described Leo’s as selling “good kosher foods,” even though many American Jewish families had long since given up keeping kosher. Indeed, Ed Finman says that his father had always been liberal about kosher, avoiding ham and slicing meat and cheese separately but still happily serving the two together. Other delis adapted more considerably, bowing to their cultural surroundings or dietary trends that frowned on copious helpings of pastrami.
“No longer is the delicatessen an overeater’s oasis found only in the big cities in America, specifically in neighborhoods with a Jewish heritage,” the Rocky Mount Telegram wrote in 1977, noting that, across the country, delis were adding menu items like Georgia grits and Texas chili. “Today the delicatessen is crowding in on the territory of the fast-food franchise.”
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Today, the delicatessen is making a different kind of comeback. Jewish staples still abound, but often in different formats. Winslow’s Deli, Tavern & Market in Greenville adds salami, pepperoni, ham, and mozzarella cheese to its pastrami sandwich — the antithesis of a kosher meal. Neal’s Deli in Carrboro offers a Southern spin on a classic sandwich with its revelatory pastrami biscuit. With Harry’s long gone, Chapel Hill’s Jewish community often turns to the Palestinian-owned Mediterranean Deli, Ferris says, because of the overlaps with modern Israeli cuisine.
“It has become a step-in for the classic Jewish deli,” Ferris says. When she’d invite students from her Jewish studies classes to a gathering at her home, Mediterranean Deli would cater.
“It’s become part of what makes Chapel Hill Chapel Hill,” says Hanchett, a UNC alum who adds that his family always stops at the deli when they’re in town.
A similar trend has unfolded across the state. As new immigrant communities make North Carolina home, the types of delis have shifted, too. Before it closed, Tony’s Deli in Charlotte served Dominican and Caribbean food, including sancocho, fried plantains, and chicken stew. At the Polish-owned Euro Deli Mart in Greensboro, customers can find Lithuanian Svalya cheese and Polish sausages but buy more pierogi than anything else.
The most readily identifiable delis in North Carolina today are Italian, with cities such as Wilmington sometimes boasting multiple options. A business like Dioli’s Italian Market in Winston- Salem may not feature “deli” in its name, but it still provides a deli component, selling sandwiches like a hot Italian coppa, a pimento cheese sandwich, and a “traditional Jewish pastrami” on rye. Similarly, Hispanic-owned tiendas and supermercados have proliferated across the state, and while few, if any, use the word “deli,” the same function persists at these butcher counters that also serve tacos and tortas.
“What we’re seeing with the rise in delis is a demographic shift in what it means to be Southern,” Hanchett says. “People are bringing all of those different foods to North Carolina, and it’s creating the newest of the New South.”
With a more fluid definition of what constitutes a delicatessen, it’s easy to see that this generation of businesses carries forward the spirit of the state’s historic delis. It would be a shame to lose traditional deli delights like matzoh ball soup or pastrami on rye, but there’s plenty of room to innovate as long as the community ethos persists.
“Those kinds of interactions are good for the palate, but I also think they’re good for us as a people.”
“In a world that is increasingly dominated by corporate food prepared someplace else, having a place where someone behind the counter interacts with you as you buy cheese and an ever-changing array of lunch meats, that’s a community-building thing,” Hanchett says. “Those kinds of interactions are good for the palate, but I also think they’re good for us as a people.”
Finman agrees. There are only a few places that do things the old way, offering the sort of menu that his family did at Leo’s. His favorite locally is Katz Deli in the Ballantyne neighborhood, where he enjoys the chopped chicken liver. Big Ben, a modern British restaurant just down the street from the former deli, recently added four specialty sandwiches from the Finmans’ menu, including the beloved Leo’s Special. Yet it was always about more than taste.
“That’s the panache of a deli to me — that you’re involved with an extended family, not just a place,” Finman says. “I feel sorry for kids today that there aren’t as many mom-and-pop businesses where people can experience that and press the flesh with the owners. It’s about the operators, the devoted family members who donate their life’s blood. That’s rare.”