PORTLAND – The owners of a business that their family established during World War II are calling their decision to close this month the “end of an era.”

DiPietro’s Italian Sandwiches at 171 Cumberland Ave. will serve its last customer on Aug. 18. The shop opened 69 years ago.

A banner hanging outside says, “Thanks for your loyalty. We will be closing to enjoy retirement. Come in and savor one of our famous Italians because, as Joey used to say, you’ve eaten the rest, now try the best.”

Joey is the late Joseph DiPietro, who took over the store from his parents in 1966. He died in 2003.

His widow, Eleanor, runs the shop now with help from her daughter, Michele Grondin of Portland, part-time employee Mike McDonald and her grandchildren.

“It’s bittersweet,” Eleanor DiPietro said Thursday night, in between preparing customers’ orders. “It’s going to be hard, but it’s time. I need to retire.”

DiPietro said her husband’s parents, Warren and Grace DiPietro, established the store in 1944. Their photographs still hang on a wall at the front of the sandwich shop, along with a photo of Joseph.

DiPietro said the three-story building, across Cumberland Avenue from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, is being sold.

The real estate agent has told her that the prospective buyer has indicated plans to continue to run a store on the first floor. The upper floors are used for apartments.

DiPietro said she has no idea whether the new owner will sell Italian sandwiches, but customers said Thursday evening that no one will be able to replicate the mouth-watering sandwiches that the DiPietro family has made for nearly seven decades.

In addition to regular ham Italians, DiPietro’s offers a Smile sandwich, with ham, cheese, tomato and mayo on a round egg roll, as well as Poorboy and Richgirl sandwiches.

A Richgirl features double ham and cheese, tomatoes, mayo or oil, toasted with pepperoni and mozzarella cheese.

Grondin said, “You can also add some diamonds” — onions.

The store had a steady stream of customers around Thursday’s dinner hour. Some walked there from their homes, while others drove.

“You have a date,” Ellen Deering gasped, after reading the banner announcing that Aug. 18 would be the shop’s last day. “I think I need to sit down. I need a beer.”

Deering, who lives in Portland, said she has been coming to DiPietro’s since the early 1960s.

“It’s an institution. They have the best Italians, the freshest bread, delicious tomatoes, and oil-cured olives,” Deering said as she ordered a regular Italian.

DiPietro said many local and national celebrities have ordered off her menu over the years, including former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley, who was born in Portland. Superior Court Justice Roland Cole is also a customer.

And Thursday night, Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, and his wife, Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, stopped by to order a sandwich.

Peter Mills, who grew up in Gorham, said he has been ordering Italians since he was a boy.

“Back in the 1950s it was DiPietro’s versus Amato’s. I can remember the days when an Italian cost 25 cents,” he said.

“We come here almost every day,” said Wendy Townsend, who lives in the surrounding neighborhood. “In fact, we were here this morning.”

Townsend and her 9-year-old son, Tyler Hethcoat, ordered a regular Italian and a tuna Italian.

Townsend said she enjoys the food but will also miss the sandwich shop’s owners. “They are awesome people,” she said.

McDonald, the employee who chops vegetables and makes sandwiches, began working part time at DiPietro’s 20 years ago to help pay for his wedding. He never left, even though he also has a full-time job at Maine Medical Center.

“You get emotionally involved when you work for a place this long,” McDonald said.

Grondin, who is 39 and started working at the sandwich shop when she was 12, said it’s a seven-day-a-week business. That’s why she’s glad that her mother is retiring.

She said her mother has worked tirelessly over the years to keep DiPietro’s running. She raised four children in that time and now has seven grandchildren.

DiPietro wouldn’t say how old she is, but her daughter said, “She’s old enough to retire.”

“She has been here seven days a week and 12 hours a day since my dad died,” Grondin said.

The store closes only on major holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4th and Easter.

DiPietro said she plans to spend more time with her family and hopes to travel. But she isn’t looking forward to Monday, Aug. 19, when workers will take down the DiPietro’s sign that has hung outside the building for so many years.

“It will be a hard day,” she said.

 

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]