When people get attached to great food, they’ll stick with it for life.
Heck, they might even think of it while they’re preparing for death.
Apparently, this was how passionately one longtime customer felt about the food at Morelli’s Deli and Catering, 7506 Seventh Ave. While preparing to leave earth, he just couldn’t forget about Tom and Ann Morelli, the husband-and-wife team who own Morelli’s.
“We ended up being in one guy’s will,” Ann Morelli recalled during an interview at the deli this week. “I mean, that’s how close Tom got to this guy. … We get this paperwork, and we’re like, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Indeed, it seems great food never goes out of style, in life or in death. Ann Morelli has always worked in the food business, and she recalls her father once telling her she’d never run out of customers.
“My father owned a paint/decorating business, and I was always in food,” Ann said. “… And he said, ‘Stick with it, because people are always going to eat.’”
And a whole lot of them love to eat from Morelli’s.
On July 28 of this year – one day after their 33rd wedding anniversary – Tom and Ann Morelli marked the 25th anniversary of their business, which opened in 1998. Like any good small business owners, they didn’t spend money on a lavish anniversary celebration.
Rather, they invested money back into the business, purchasing a big, brand-new cooler in which to put their homemade pizzas.
“We don’t have nice furniture at home, but we have nice equipment here,” Ann said with a laugh. “And we’re fine with that. We’re both fine with that. We always make an (agreement), ‘We’re not buying anything, because we’re buying this for the store.’
“We’re excited that the pizzas have their own home. It’s taken a long time to get there.”
Understandably, Tom and Ann Morelli are too busy to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Morelli’s Deli and Catering. So, we’ll do it for them by naming the Morellis this week’s Kenosha.com Kenoshans of the Week.
Specialize in sandwiches
Morelli’s wheelhouse is the deli’s delicious, fresh sandwiches, and a lunchtime rush of loyal customers on Wednesday attested to their popularity (this writer can also attest to how delicious they are).
Ann said that when she and Tom first started the business, “selling a few sandwiches was exciting to us.” Now, Ann says, Morelli’s sells about 100 to 150 sandwiches PER DAY.
The Morellis really started to focus their business on sandwiches and deli offerings around 2007. At that time, the roads surrounding the business were torn up from construction, which created a very difficult situation for the Morellis. That’s when the deli really came to the forefront, and the Morellis officially changed the business’ name to what it is today.
“Our accountant and our banker were like, ‘You’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do,’” Ann recalled. “… The accountant was like, ‘OK, you’re very unique. There’s hardly any businesses like yours. You’ve got to focus on the deli. That’s the thing that makes you different.’
“It’s what we love doing, anyway. We love making food.”
Among Morelli’s many sandwich offerings are the Reuben, the meatball bomber, homemade pulled pork and the Cubano, which isn’t necessarily easy to find in the area. (For Morelli’s full menu, click HERE.)
“That’s starting to be an up-and-comer,” Ann says of the Cubano. “It’s a very unique sandwich you can’t get, really, anywhere. It’s our recipe. Nobody knows it.
“… We’ve more than anything focused on sandwiches. We’re one of the only places left where you can order a custom cold sandwich. We (also) have a lot of hot sandwiches.”
The “big-ticket” item of those hot sandwiches is Morelli’s signature Italian beef.
“We’re known for our Italian beef,” Ann said. “It’s the most important sale in the store. It’s everything.”
During the busy Christmas season, Ann said Morelli’s goes through about 1,500 pounds of Italian beef, or approximately five cases per week, as customers load up for the holidays.
In addition to its fantastic sandwiches, Morelli’s offers a wide array of fresh, homemade products, including the aforementioned pizzas, breakfast sandwiches, burgers, hot and mild giardiniera, guacamole and various salsas.
“We’re very sandwich-oriented, and then the pizzas,” Ann said. “We’re really proud of our guacamole, our salsas. We make a lot of our own stuff.”
Morelli’s also carries a variety of products from Paielli’s Bakery, another Kenosha small-business institution, and Ann says Morelli’s is sometimes referred to as “Paielli’s South.”
Passion for the business
Oddly enough, before starting their business together, Tom and Ann Morelli both held the same position for the same company, just at different times. They were both Vice President of Operations for Open Pantry, which used to have over 100 stores in Wisconsin.
“That’s where we learned the business,” Ann said. “I started when I was 21, he started about the same time. We didn’t know each other. We met.
“… I’m from Fond du Lac, he’s from Kenosha. So we met at work.”
Shortly after marrying, Tom and Ann settled in Tom’s native Kenosha – he’s a St. Joseph Catholic Academy graduate – living down the street from where Morelli’s is now located. At the time, the building was a White Hen, and it became Southport Pantry in 1992.
Tom would stop there for coffee and pitch the owners on someday buying the business. Then, in 1998, he and Ann made that a reality.
“We lived on 75th and Third,” Ann said. “And he’s like, ‘If you ever want to sell the store, let me know.’ And they said, ‘Actually, we ran a blind box ad,’ and they wanted to sell.
“So we put a deal together. We bought the store. We’re the fourth owners.”
Tom had two children, Heather and Joe, from a previous marriage, then he and Ann had another son together, Tommy. Ann worked plenty at the deli, and their children all worked there, too, at some point.
But it was really Tom’s passion.
“This was his dream,” Ann said.
“… All the recipes are Tom’s. Some of them are mine, but mostly his. He really laid all the groundwork, the paperwork, everything.”
Unfortunately, Ann said Tom began having health issues around 2010, so she started stepping in to run more of the day-to-day operations of the business. In 2021, Tom had to step away from coming into the business entirely, but he still does what he can from home.
“He’s very helpful,” Ann said. “He’ll be like, ‘Why are they doing this, why are they doing that?’ He’s very helpful. He does all the daily paperwork, all the invoices, really helpful with, like, ‘Why are they ringing the register like this?’ or, ‘Why are they doing that?’
“Some things I’m kind of like, ‘If you were there right now, you’d just let it go. That’s not my priority right now, honey.’ But it’s really helpful.”
A neighborhood joint
If there’s one thing that has kept Morelli’s going, through health issues or especially through that road construction in 2007 – which Ann says severely hampered the business – it’s been the loyal patronage of the “regulars” who come in from around the neighborhood to frequent Morelli’s.
“I would, more than anything, say this neighborhood has been so good to us, and they’re so forgiving,” Ann said. “Probably like the theme of my being here is, I’m here to service the neighborhood. That’s what I’m here for.
“We just enjoy all the relationships. We’ve met a lot of really nice people.”
Ann singled out the support of the Knights and the Kenesies, two Kenosha – and St. Joseph – stalwart families who have long patronized Morelli’s.
“We love them,” Ann said. “There’s so many really good families in this neighborhood. They’re just very giving.”
And the many employees who have worked at Morelli’s over the years have also become like family to Tom and Ann. Actually, Ann says, that can be both the best and worst part of running a small business.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “The employees are the hardest part, but the employees are the best part. I mean, some of them are like my kids. I love them. And sometimes that gets in the way.
“I just love some of the kids.”
As an example, she showed a photo of a former employee, Tony, who Ann called “one of the best workers ever.”
“This kid, he came in here, and he just would clean up,” Ann said. “People loved him. … Even the older women, he’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re looking good!’
“He just knew how to talk to them. I hated losing him.”
Ann also cited Erna, a woman who worked at Morelli’s for 14 years until she retired and was a “mainstay at the register, as well as Alix Stangas, who worked for the Morellis all the way from age 15 to age 30.
The entire business, it seems, has a familial feel, something Tom and Ann established when they opened Morelli’s and first started working together in 1998.
“It was like getting married (all) over again, the first year,” Ann said with a laugh. “I never realized how much he flirted with people. But, you know, it works.”
One key to both their successful marriage and business partnership, Ann says, is that she and Tom love being with each other. You have to if you’re going to run a business together.
“We’re just stay-at-home people,” Ann said. “… We just love to be together. It sounds crazy, but I spend every moment I can – we just sit and chill.
“We’re probably a very unique couple, because we don’t mind being together all the time.”
Outside the business, Ann is a yoga and running enthusiast who has completed a number of half-Ironman triathlons and full marathons in her life. She says competing in those types of events has lent great lessons to her small business life, in that you must learn to fight through the tough times and keep going.
As for when Ann, who’s now 63 – Tom turns 67 this month – will step away from Morelli’s Deli and Catering, she says her plan is to go until she’s 70.
“My goal is 70, and I’ll sell it,” Ann said. “It’s going to be best offer, and I have no idea what somebody will do with this place.
“… None of the kids are interested. I don’t know that that would change. They’ve all got jobs where they make more than they would make here.”
But Ann Morelli is still going strong for now, and she takes a good knock on wood when discussing her current situation.
“Anything can happen,” she says. “But I’m really healthy.”