How a point pleasant beach retailer has been supplying shore residents with Italian specialties for almost two decades
By Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Amessé Photography
Joseph Leone Introna was just 21-years-old when he decided to pool his passion for baking and cooking and open a little Italian bread bakery in a small strip mall on Route 35 South in Point Pleasant Beach.
“At that time, in 1997, it was hard to find nice, hard-crusted bread down here at the Jersey Shore,” Introna said. “So we started out as a bread bakery, selling freshly baked bread to restaurants and storefronts in addition to serving walk-in customers. And while we tried to stay focused on bread, customers would always come in and ask for good Italian cold cuts and fresh mozzarella to go with it, so we started to supply that, too.”
Introna, who had been involved in the bakery and specialty foods industry since he was 13 years old, teamed up with his future brother-in-law, John Hilla, and the pair formed a business plan to build an Italian gourmet market where Shore residents could buy fresh imported goods and other delicious specialties not readily available in their area. Joe Leone’s Italian Specialties was born.
“In the beginning, it was challenging, because many people told me that the concept wouldn’t work in this location,” Introna said. “Word was that there weren’t enough Italian people here to appreciate our kinds of food and breads. The thoughts were discouraging, but I saw things differently and pushed to get the idea off the ground.”
Introna and Hilla were actually motivated by the doubt. And even though they had little money to launch the business, the pair persevered.
“I sold my car and a collection of compact discs,” he said. “My girlfriend’s family—now my in-laws—let me sleep in their basement so I didn’t have to pay rent. I can remember rummaging for quarters, nickels, and dimes in the console of my car the night before opening just to make change for the register.”
The fire in Introna’s belly, combined with all of the late nights and hard work, paid off. Jersey Shore residents loved that they could now find authentic cheeses and imported meats at a local shop, and commuters dropped in on their way home from work to pick up Introna’s hot prepared foods for dinner.
“The success of Joe Leone’s was fueled by what our guests wanted,” said Introna. “They asked for freshly prepared meals they could serve their families, and we provided them. They wanted fresh, quality ingredients, and we produced. We worked around the clock to get this business going, and suddenly things just started to take off and we were living the American dream.”
Introna also focused on surrounding himself with a hardworking staff that helped take the business to the next level.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have such good people around me,” he said. “From the very beginning, I knew what I wanted to do and what skills I could provide, but none of this would have been possible without every single one of my team members. We started with five employees, and now we’re at 158.”
And ever since the business opened its doors, Introna has given back to the community that supports him.
“It’s the reason why we’re successful, so it’s extremely important for us to give back to those who have helped us,” he said.
That’s why Introna and Hilla set a budget each month devoted solely to local charitable organizations. “We recognize the value of community involvement and the enrichment of programs that deliver aid, care, research, time, resources, and funding to worthy causes within our local communities on an ongoing basis,” Introna said. “It’s absolutely vital.”
When a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila, Italy, on April 6th 2009, killing 308 and leaving 60,000 homeless, Introna took his philanthropy to an international level, and The Joe Leone’s L’Aquila Earthquake Relief Fund was founded, a multi-mission non-profit organization.
“Volunteers and myself went to Italy during the recovery effort, bringing needed supplies for the L’Aquila victims living in the tent cities,” Introna explained. “I spent the next year of my life traveling across the United States, raising funds for the victims. On one of my many return visits to L’Aquila, the idea was born to rebuild a destroyed orphanage in the heart of the affected area. The Casa Famiglia orphanage has been successfully rebuilt for the more than 36 children who reside there, lovingly cared for by the Zealous Sisters of the Sacred Heart.”
For Introna, it was all necessary to honor his Italian heritage.
“I always refer to myself as an American Italian,” Introna said. “My roots are from Italy—my grandparents are from Molfetta and Bari—but this is my country. So even though I’m an American first and an Italian second, I think it’s important to honor my roots and help the homeland where my family came from in any way possible.”
But while Introna was helping to rebuild L’Aquila, his New Jersey hometown suffered its own disaster.
“I was in Italy for the opening of the orphanage when Hurricane Sandy hit,” the owner said. “All flights were cancelled and I couldn’t get home to my wife and children; it was completely bizarre to see my neighborhood on CNN literally drowning in this storm,” adding that coming back to all the devastation was tough, but he instantly kicked into that familiar support mode.
“Before our food could perish, I reached out to all of the food banks and just started giving items away to people who needed them,” Introna said. “We had gas, so we were able to fire up the burners and make some dishes which we delivered to people who had lost their homes. It was completely mind blowing how many people along the Jersey Shore simply lost everything they had.”
For weeks, Introna supplied food for displaced residents because, as he explained simply, “that’s just what you do. I feel very thankful for having opportunities that so many others have not had.”
Introna lives in Brielle with his wife Jennifer and their five children, and only hopes to build and improve upon his business in the future.
“Every day we try to preserve what we have and somehow make it better,” he concluded. “Our biggest draw is still bread and mozzarella, but we’re constantly creating new recipes and building upon our menu to give customers what they crave. This store is a dream come true for me. To still be a success after all of these years is truly a blessing.”
Joe Leone’s Italian Specialities & Catering
510 Route 35 South, Point Pleasant Beach / 732.701.0001
Joe Leone’s Gastronomia
527 Washington Boulevard. Sea Girt / 732.681.1036