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Tenuta’s! Italian Kenosha

May 21, 2018

Cameron Swallow, wife of new Carthage President John Swallow, is on a “Welcome Home Tour” as she gets to know Kenosha. See all of Cameron’s Welcome Home posts

Tour Guide: Christina Koch ’19

Christina Koch ’19 invited me to Tenuta’s Italian Deli back in February, but she proposed waiting until the weather was good and the outdoor grill was open. We chose the first Friday of May as a likely date, but the weather did not cooperate. We were not defeated by Mother Nature’s fickle fancy, however; we doubled our Italian adventure by going to lunch at Renzo’s Pizzeria and Trattoria with Christina’s grandparents, Bill and Gina Madrigrano Friebus. Annie Tenuta Malicki, Cameron, and ChristinaAnnie Tenuta Malicki, Cameron, and Christina

Christina was a cheerful companion from the moment she got into my car on Campus Drive. We chatted about classes, family, Kenosha, May chilliness, sorority projects, and Watson the dog.

When we got to Tenuta’s, I asked her to describe for me the first time she remembered going there. She couldn’t recall a particular first visit, just an early childhood impression of a treasure house of adventure and goodies that was at the same time homey and comfortable. She remembered going there with her grandmother, great aunts, and other Italian women of Kenosha. One great aunt lived in the western United States and loved going to Tenuta’s when she was home visiting family; she would walk through the front door, stop still, close her eyes, and breathe in deeply through her nose. It was the smell that meant homecoming to her.

We walked the aisles, marveling at the variety of specialty items: How many candies? How many pastas? How many different kinds of olives?

Gina Madrigrano-Friebus, Carthage Trustee and longtime resident of Italian Kenosha, surprised us at the deli and immediately started living up to her granddaughter’s description of her as the woman who “knows everybody in town.”

I met Chris Tenuta, son of Ralph Tenuta who has served many years on Carthage’s Board of Trustees. I met Chris’ sister Annie Tenuta Malicki, and his cousin Tony Bononno, who has worked at the store for 53 years, ever since he first arrived from Italy. Annie and Gina fell into a conversation peppered with saints’ names, which I figured out was about local schools, and they gave me an introductory lesson in the history of parochial schools in Kenosha — how the 12 became two, but the other old names persist in associated elementary schools, teams, and programs.

The outdoor grill wasn’t open, but we couldn’t leave Tenuta’s without something from the bakery. Gina, Christina, and I all carefully chose our favorite cannoli — one chocolate, one plain — and made plans to eat them together after our lunch with Bill at Renzo’s.

I should have been suspicious of that plan immediately.Cameron, Chris Tenuta, Gina Madrigrano-Friebus, and Christina KochCameron, Chris Tenuta, Gina Madrigrano-Friebus, and Christina Koch

We bade the Tenuta family goodbye, and I understood on a new level the degree to which a family business really was the whole family, and often nothing but the family. At Tenuta’s the family history is very strong, like in the movies, and the chapter is not over! It’s in its fourth generation of family ownership and management.

Crossing the street to Renzo’s was like leaving one friend’s home to enter another. Gina and Bill know these business owners personally, know their children and their grandchildren, and remember school records and athletic triumphs.

We were shown to our table by Rosalba, a tiny, energetic woman who, even in her heels, barely reached my shoulder. She was pleased to meet me and told me stories about the old days at Carthage, when Renzo’s sold baskets of Renzo fries to the students on campus. Gina asked about her son, who works for NASA, and Rosalba was ready with pictures of shuttle launches and news from the rocket scientist. I learned about Italian standard menus and house specialties that establish a particular niche for a restaurant. When it was time to take our picture, Rosalba called to her husband, Frank, who came out from the kitchen to handle the cameras. He would not consent to be in any of the photos, only to take them.

Bill described Rosalba’s and Frank’s dedication to their children’s education and success. He struggled to convey the difference he observed between that chapter of Kenosha history and the current one. There was a shared culture of dedication to family betterment — immigrant parents working seven days a week to make sure all their children could go to college. And it worked, in large measure, as evident in the NASA pictures Rosalba shared.

I didn’t know many immigrants growing up in the south, and stories like these had seemed to belong to a more distant past than the past Bill was describing. I felt as if I’d seen through a doorway, like the great aunt who could step into Tenuta’s and smell her childhood — a vision of another chapter of America’s story, one not closed but still being written.

As we left Renzo’s, I could find no willing partners for dessert, even though the cannoli from Tenuta’s were fresh and inviting in my car. How did I end up with six large cannoli to take home after an already generous lunch? I complained, but they only laughed, saying, “You can never have too many cannoli!”

At Renzo's with RosalbaAt Renzo's with Rosalba

See for yourself

Tenuta’s Delicatessen
3203 52nd St.
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Tenuta’s Delicatessen website

Renzo’s Pizzeria and Trattoria
282- 52nd St.
Kenosha, Wisconsin
Renzo’s Pizzeria and Trattoria website

Be a tour guide

Your turn! Want to show Cameron Swallow your favorite part of Kenosha? Be a tour guide.