Italian fare authentic at Tenuta’s, Kenosha

A gallon of virgin olive oil was one of the oddest holiday gifts that I’ve ever given, and it was bought on a whim while shopping in Kenosha a few years ago.

The city’s downtown lakefront has improved remarkably since I worked for the Kenosha News in the 1980s. The shoreline has gone from an industrial eyesore to a pretty public campus of park and museum space.

I left the area shortly before the opening of its outlet malls, off of Interstate 94, and that’s probably a good thing. Friends and shopping bring me back a couple of times a year, and my regular stops include Tenuta’s, 3203 52nd St., an engaging and massive Italian deli/market that has been around since 1950.

John and Lydia Tenuta moved to Kenosha from their native Italy in 1920. Their first business, a jam-packed ice cream parlor and deli called Tenuta’s Confectionary, was less than the size of a two-car garage. Son Ralph grew up with the business and eventually took it over.

“When people told us they wanted something, we’d find it and add it,” notes Chris Tenuta, the current owner and one of Ralph’s seven kids (“all have helped from the time they were old enough to sort bottles,” the family says online). A city with a strong Italian-American heritage, long-time customers have included TV actors Al Molinaro of “Happy Days” and Daniel Travanti of “Hill Street Blues” – both are Kenosha natives.

Now the store is 17,000 square feet, the stock is extensive and claims are slightly bold. Want pasta? “If we don’t have the cut you want you will not find it anywhere,” the Tenuta family says at

A family recipe that is four generations old is used to make the Italian sausage here; mild to hot spicing is available. Giardiniera peppers, also mild to hot, can be and are purchased by the case. There are many types of domestic and imported cheeses, including fresh mozzarella. Feta choices are Greek, French, Bulgarian, domestic (slightly drier, milder and less salty). The half-dozen provolones range from smoked to “extra extra sharp.”

A trademark sandwich is the Muffo-Lotta, a play on the word muffoletta, which means “a bread, a salad and a sandwich.” This version contains mortadella (a bologna), ham, capicolla (seasoned, cured pork), salami, pepperoni, provolone cheese, lettuce, mild peppers, vinegar and oil dressing. Ingredients are stuffed into thick, pita-like bread that’s specially made by a local bakery. The Muffo-Lotta starts at $1.99 for a slice.

There are dozens of other treats here, from eggplant Parmesan to freshly filled chocolate cannoli shells. I used to make a beeline for the chicken tortellini, but this is one labor-intensive item that no longer is stocked regularly.

For more about Tenuta’s, call 262-657-9001.

Tenuta’s is just one of the food places that make Wisconsin unusual. I’d love to hear about others that are your favorites.

As an incentive, we will give away at least a couple of copies of books by Mount Horeb author Jeff Hagen. His newest is “Searching for the Holy Grill: The Most Divine Burgers in Minnesota, Wisconsin & Iowa” ($9.95, Adventure Publications). Fun and whimsical, instead of being the definitive word, there are 37 places mentioned.

“If Popeye and Olive Oyl owned a bar, this would be it,” the author writes of the Anchor Bar & Grill, Superior. “The ambiance of the place is, well, Old Navy … as in ore boat models, life vests, portholes, maritime schedules, charts and real sailors knocking back boiler-makers at the bar.”

In Glendale, Solly’s Grille gets Jeff’s attention. It has been open since 1936. A brass nametag indicates which counter stool is baseball announcer Bob Uecker’s favorite; he has eaten there often.

Another spotlight is reserved for the Hamburger Hall of Fame in Seymour, birthplace of the hamburger. Its annual Burger Fest is the first Saturday in August.

The fish fry was the topic of two of Jeff’s earlier books, “Fry Me to the Moon” and “Codfather II.” Next up for him is research for “Brewed Awakenings,” a book about coffeehouses.

If you have advice for Jeff, based on your own travels, I’d be glad to pass it along. So feel free to tell us about your favorite burger place, fish fry and/or coffeehouse. Be convincing – there’s a lot of competition out there!