By Jeanne Starmack
Jimmy Occhibove decid- ed he’d had enough of his two-hour commute and his shift work.
He’d opened his own business in 1974, selling Italian novelties from his wife’s parents’ garage on West Federal Street in Youngstown. Still, he continued to work for Valley Mould and Iron after that mill moved from Hubbard to Cleveland.
“I drove that every day for a year and a half,” he said as he sat in the dining area of his Italian specialty store on Belmont Avenue last week.
It was what happened next that led him and his family on a journey that is still continuing and is much more satisfying: He got laid off.
He never had time to collect any unemployment checks though, because a week later, the mill called him to come back.
“I told the foreman, ‘Bust my locker open and throw away my tools and clothes,’” he said. “‘I want to dedicate my life to my business.’”
He never looked back. Now, he’s looking forward to doubling the size of his store, which includes a grocery section with Italian specialties, a deli with hot foods, a bakery and the dining area.
His mantra was, “I have to do it,” he said.
“In the mill it’s dark and dirty, and Italians are used to being outside and in the air,” added his wife, Irene, who helps run the business along with their son, Frank.
At first, their store in the garage catered to other Italian immigrants who were nostalgic for reminders of home.
“My husband would rent a truck and go get Italian novelties — statues, books, key chains, dishes,” Irene said. “Little by little, we added food.”
Jimmy had been a baker while living in Montreal before coming to Youngstown to be with Irene after she moved here with her family.
“About 1978, he started baking again,” she said. First, he baked Italian pastries and cakes.
When the store, called Jimmy’s, moved in 1983 to the Colonial Plaza in Liberty, customers wanted breads and sandwiches, she said.
When the store moved across Belmont to its present location in 2007, the lunch business really took off, she said.
It took off so well, in fact, that the store found itself too cramped for customers.
“At lunch time, people walk away ’cause there’s no place to sit,” Jimmy said.
Once a 7,400-square-foot addition is built, that will no longer be a problem.
“We’re doubling the size,” said Frank. “We’re making it uncluttered, easier for working and for our customers to shop.”
The addition will include an enlarged dining area and a warehouse, but the store will also have room to spread out, he said.
The store has 23 employees now, and will add five to 10 more, said Jimmy. The ground is broken, and the building should start in the spring. The family hopes to have the addition ready by the store’s 40th anniversary in August.
They have come a long way from the garage on West Federal Street, and they’re happy in their work.
“It’s in Frank’s blood,” said Irene. “He’s really like his dad. He loves to bake. He’s there 24-7.”
“It’s not work,” Frank added. “It’s second nature. It’s what I do. I was fortunate enough to be born into it.”