By Jillian Smith
If you are a college student, chances are you want good food and lots of it. Cheap food, not-microwaved-or-deep-fried food or eat-this-while-I’m running-between-my-job-and-a-study-session food. That can be a tall order in a place like Youngstown that doesn’t have many options, right?
My fellow Penguins, I give you, the deli. I had the chance to sit down with the owner of the Kravitz Deli.
Kravitz began catering to a large number of ethnic Jewish immigrants coming to Youngstown in the earlier part of the 20th century. Located just past the North Side in Liberty, the unassuming deli was recently named to the Weatherhead 100, a Cleveland-based list of “must-watch” fastest-growing companies.
Why? A lot of it has to do with the mastermind behind the magic: Jack Kravitz. The son of Rose Kravitz, who started the business in the late 1930s as a way to recover from the effects of the Great Depression, and the restaurant is synonymous. The man will come up to you and greet you personally, ask you about your family and crack a witty joke that leaves you feeling that all is right and good in the world.
More than just your friendly neighborhood deli owner, Kravitz has cut his teeth in the business world through some of the toughest times any entrepreneur can encounter.
“I was in the wholesale bagel business when we lost a major customer, and things went south. After closing the bakery, I was faced with being an overeducated serial entrepreneur,” Kravitz said. “No one wanted to hire me. My mom was 88 at the time, and I asked her if she wanted to give me the business, as I had no money to buy it.”
From its humble beginnings, Kravitz has transformed the business into a massive success. Kravitz and the deli’s success have thrived off the ability to pivot; not just from a failing bagel business to a deli, but now to a deli that goes outside the bounds of what was standard embracing a multitude of ethnic traditions. Some of their busiest days are the Polish Fat Tuesday Celebration (complete with paczki – delicious Polish homemade doughnuts) and St. Patty’s Day (with an abundance of kegs and corned beef.)
I recommend the Israeli Salad, but the place is known for its corned beef sandwiches, which feature a stack of hand-shaved corned (salted) beef on top of grilled rye bread with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.
“We are the only place that cooks corned beef briskets, and we have the only Berkel slicer, which is the preferred automatic slicer for corned beef briskets,” Kravitz said. “We are the only people that know how to slice a corned beef brisket.”
Just as Kravitz has proudly kept his ethnic identity alive in his deli while embracing outside traditions, he believes a similar approach can be very successful in a place like Youngstown: holding on to identity while adapting to change.
Kravitz said, we have to embrace how to downsize our population while retaining our identity and embracing the things that will make younger people want to live here.
Many delis in Youngstown have likewise managed to keep the immigrant history and culture of the city’s past alive while churning out some delicious grub.
If you are interested in other delis that have maintained ethnic traditions, also check out Downtown Circle Deli, located downtown on Federal Street. It specializes in Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine and offers delicious $5 giant gyros. The tabbouleh is a great side dish if you are looking for something healthy and quick. For those early morning classes, Downtown Circle is sometimes open as early as 4 or 5 a.m. The deli has outdoor hookah seating, often with live music later in the night.
Jimmy’s Italian Specialties, right near Kravitz in Liberty Township, features a Spin-Your-Own Salad to-go option, an impressive Panini selection and a pretty quick lunch service. If you want to see the best of more “off-the-beaten-path” Italian options, this is the place to go. You can stop in and get a “brick” (Panini) for lunch and buy some Italian candies or sodas that you will not find anywhere else in the Valley.
Finally, Krakus Polish Deli, located on Market Street in Boardman, makes that most famous and familiar of Polish foods, the pierogi by the half dozen. On Tuesdays you can try the Buffalo-ogi (which are stuffed with a homemade buffalo chicken dip), or Fridays, try the blueberry pierogi, which is a dessert variety. The deli is also connected to most of the Polish events in the community, of which there are many, and so it is a great way to stay up on interesting local festivities if you want to learn more about the culture.