Running this successful Italian specialty store is a family affair.
By NANCY BAILEY
LIBERTY -- In these days of super-sized grocery stores, Jimmy's Italian Food Specialties resembles the neighborhood corner store of long ago, when the people who worked there knew their customers' names as well as their likes and dislikes.
"That's what we wanted when we started out, a place to sell specialty items that remind people of home," said Irene Occhibove, who owns the Belmont Avenue store along with her husband, Jim.
The Occhiboves emigrated from Italy. He left in 1969, and she in 1970.
Mrs. Occhibove and her family eventually settled in Youngstown's Brier Hill area in 1973. The Occhiboves were married in 1974, and he began working at Valley Mould & amp; Iron Co. in Hubbard.
Wanted own business: "He didn't like working there, and he had this idea that he wanted to open his own business. One day, he came upon this wholesale statuary place near Pittsburgh. He loaded up his car and brought the stuff home," she said.
The young couple turned Mrs. Occhibove's parents' garage on West Federal Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) into a store.
"We did the best we could to make the garage a store. We used contact paper for wallpaper," she said with a laugh.
The little store, initially called The Italian Gift Shop, opened in 1975 and sold home decor and religious statues.
"We really started adding to our inventory when my husband found an Italian supplier in New York that sold items like Italian cookware, bowls imported from Italy and Italian music," Mrs. Occhibove said.
Was a baker: When Occhibove first left Italy, he went to Montreal, where he worked as a baker.
"He always wanted to go back to baking, so in 1977, we built a very small building on a very small lot on West Federal near the Division Street bridge and added baked goods to our line," she said.
The store was renamed The Italian Gift Shop and Pastries.
The couple added Capodimonte products to their store. The ornate lamps, vases and chandeliers, along with other Italian-related items, drew customers from all over the area.
"There wasn't anything like this anywhere else at the time, and this reminded Italians of home," Mrs. Occhibove said.
Had to move: She said they moved in 1982 because they needed to be in a high-traffic area to sell their baked goods. They chose a storefront at 3129 Belmont Avenue.
"When we moved, Harold Libby owned this building, and we rented from him. He was very good to us. During our first six months in business, he did not charge us rent so we could get the store up and running."
The couple's four children and Mrs. Occhibove's mother, Josephine Ricciardi, are all involved in the business.
Family involvement: "Our daughter, Marilou, has worked very hard to expand our deli section, and our son, Giuseppe, started our hot foods section, but a little over a year ago, he opened his own business at the other end of the plaza, where he now sells the hot foods," Mrs. Occhibove said.
She added, "Frankie, another one of our sons, loves working with the customers, and Jimmy, our 12-year-old, is working here just like his brothers and sister did when they were young -- in the back cleaning."
Throughout the years, the family increased the size of its store as well as their product line.
"When we first started, we used an oven that held only two trays. Now we have two ovens that are the size of rooms," Mrs. Occhibove said.