Alex Donley's first bite of solid food as an infant was a piece of hot salami from Gioia's Deli. That early taste may well have sealed his fate. Nearly 40 years later, Donley, now the owner of Gioia's, is still inseparable from the famous sandwich that he says represents his hometown.
"Gioia's, hot salami, St. Louis — they're all synonymous with each other," Donley says.
He's owned the deli since 2016, but it's been in the Donley family for decades and has been a staple of the St. Louis dining scene for over a century. Sitting at the corner of Macklind and Daggett avenues, Gioia's has fed thousands of St. Louis residents, with thousands of sandwiches, since 1918 — and they don't plan to stop anytime soon.
"There's so much history in this corner that everyone in this area has and feels," Donley says. "There's not a lot of that in St. Louis."
Donley's grandmother, Arlene Donley, bought the place in 1980 from Steve and John Gioia, second-generation brothers of the original Gioia family. She was driving on Macklind and saw a "For Sale" sign in the window of what was then a small mom-and-pop grocery store servicing the surrounding Hill neighborhood.
With the help of Cathy Donley, Alex's mom, the mom-and-daughter pair shifted the store away from grocery items and toward what the customers seemed to want: sandwiches.
"We had cans of green beans, the basic needs," Donley said. "But everyone would come in, bypass all that, and go get a sandwich."
In 1990, Cathy Donley took over the store by herself. But she had help in the form of her three sons, who would bike to the deli every day after school.
"I started working at Gioia's when I was old enough to see over the counter," Donley says.
At the Hill location, a framed black-and-white photo shows Cathy and her three young sons, each of whom is clutching a sandwich the size of their arm. In the picture, Donley, the smallest, is wrapped in an apron and sports a gap-tooth smile, clearly thrilled to be there.
Though he had two older brothers, Donley was the one to inherit Gioia's. "I just fell in love with it," he said. His mom was ready to sell to an outside buyer, but once she saw how invested Donley was in the deli, she offered it to him first, in 2014. Donley accepted without hesitation, and fully took over two years later.
Donely said that in the first years he took over, before she died, Mary Gioia, the youngest daughter of the Gioia family, would come every Saturday. She would order a hot salami sandwich to make sure that Donley was doing it right. Gioia would sit outside, eat and tell Donley stories about Yogi Berra, who grew up in the Hill.
"[Berra] would come in, get a hot salami-provolone-mustard," Donley retells. "Him and his friends would go around the Hill getting bottles to turn back in here, to get money to buy baseballs."
These days, no famous baseball players (that I could tell) frequent Gioia's. But nearly everyone else does. Around the lunch hour, about a dozen people at any given time are gathered inside, waiting for their deli numbers to be called. Men in orange construction vests stand next to a grandmother and her grandkids, who rub shoulders with a gentleman in an all-white suit. On a sunny Saturday, Donley says, the Hill location serves nearly 1,000 customers.
Small wooden tables are flanked by red chairs, and bags of potato chips line the walls, giving the joint an intentionally old-timey feel. Even its "small" sandwiches are filling, at about six inches long and half as wide. A "regular" stretches to ten inches and contains two layers of meat, cheese and vegetables — enough to send the average person into a post-lunch food coma.
Hot salami, Gioia's famed sandwich, is a distinctly St. Louis phenomenon. The meat is not technically salami but a sausage that is boiled and sliced immediately to order while still warm. Donley said that Charlie Gioia, the founder, brought over the recipe from northern Italy. These days, Gioia's makes nearly 4,000 pounds of the stuff per week.
Donley eats at least a piece of a sandwich nearly every day, in order to make sure the quality is up to snuff. The sandwiches should be consistent, he says, not too thick or thin, heated to the right temperature. Donley can't explain how he knows what the "right" hot salami or roast beef tastes like, just that it should taste exactly how it did when he was a kid.
"I'm doing what Mary Gioia did to me," he says. "Course correction."
Tradition is important to Donley. He wants Gioia's to be a cornerstone of the Hill's history, just like it's always been. At the same time, he knows he has to "evolve with the times" in order to stay standing.
After an experiment with a food truck in 2014, Donley and his wife, Amanda, expanded Gioia's from a sole location on the Hill to three more around the city.
"I'll go anywhere people want to eat my sandwiches," Donley says. In 2016, that was downtown. In 2018, Creve Coeur. In 2022, the couple opened a small takeout window in Maryland Heights.
When COVID-19 hit, however, Gioia's century-long tenure nearly came to an end. "We lost 17 employees in one day," Donley says. Its downtown location shuttered after a steady stream of 200 to 300 people per day slowed to a trickle of less than a dozen.
Yet the remaining locations stayed strong, likely thanks to takeout sandwich orders from loyal customers and Gioia's small ingredient-source radius, which spared the deli from the supply-chain issues that plagued the country.
"We were local before local was celebrated, because that's just what you did on the Hill. You bought from your local guys," Donley says.
Gioia's gets bread from Pete Vitale, just down the street. Cheese is from Hautly, which used to be on the Hill before it was bought out by Kuna Foods, a Midwest food supplier. Pork comes from greater-Missouri farmers, but the rest of their meat comes from Volpi, about a block away.
So with its neighbors' ingredients and Donley's will to survive, Gioia's kept making sandwiches throughout the pandemic. "Lyda Krewson said we were essential," Donley says. "So we are essential. We are here to feed people. And I took that seriously."
As a self-proclaimed extrovert, Donley gains energy from interacting with customers and employees. His day-to-day involves bouncing around to different locations, putting out small fires and making sure employees and customers are happy. Amanda is more level, focusing on the business side of the industry. Working together, Donley says, the pair has grown the business three or four times as large as it was in 2016.
For now, Donley sees himself and his family as the heart of Gioia's. He and Amanda have four young kids –– who were all given hot salami as their first bite of solid food. He's hoping one of them might take over the deli once he retires.
'They all say, 'Daddy's the best sandwich maker in St. Louis.' And I'm proud of that. I know this is hard, and this is a service-based industry," Donley says. "But it's a great thing, and they all know how important this is to our family. And keeping it strong is number one."