Eatery owner has ties to military, Sicily and basketball

by Joy Priest

Only one church has a bar in the pulpit, and it’s a block away from campus.

When Joe Bologna’s Restaurant first moved to its second location in what is now “Maxwell Alley,” on 120 W. Maxwell St., the building had been a synagogue and, before that, Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church.

If you decide to dine-in one day, you can still see 41 stained-glass windows reminiscent of a church sanctuary.
“The bar in the pulpit just naturally fell there,” owner Joe Bologna said. “The rabbi has been by to eat since then.”

Bologna, 65, whose grandfathers were both from Sicily, says he decided to put his actual name on the restaurant to represent that he stood behind everything that he did and to let customers know their experience was “insured.”
Joe Bologna’s Restaurant, in business since 1973, first opened as a college eatery on Maxwell and Limestone.

“The average restaurant life is 10 years,” Bologna said. “I didn’t plan on being here for all this time. We’re just a hole-in-the-wall with great food.”

During his job as a mess hall cook in the Air Force from 1965 to 1969, Bologna cooked for 3,000 people. During some of his last years in the service, he was hired to be a private chef for a general. He reconnected with that same general back in the states after his tour. Together they financed a restaurant.

“I’ve worked in the food business for 49 years and will have been in business for myself 38 years on March 1,” Bologna said, referring to the restaurant’s upcoming anniversary.
“We started as a ‘Mom and Pop,’ and could barely afford to pay the five employees we had,” Bologna said. “Then some girls from UK came in one day and enjoyed it, said they’d tell friends and within one year in was ‘the college place to eat.’ It was nothing to have a line outside at 2 a.m. back then.”

Leonard Howell, now a computer lab manager on campus, says he can remember patronizing Joe Bologna’s when it was first starting during his undergrad years in the early ‘70s.

“I used to go up there with my friends,” Howell said. “You could get a deep dish pan pizza for less than $5 back then. When he first opened it, it was known to us college students as the best pizza place around. He had great spaghetti and meatballs, too.”

Howell said Joe Bologna’s was the “first real Italian eatery in Lexington.”

“Joe was a nice guy, very ‘New York-type’ of guy, but he really liked Lexington and enjoyed living here,” Howell said. “We used to call his place ‘Joe Bo-log-na’s’ until he corrected us one day and told us, no, it’s ‘Joe Buh-lo-neys.’”

More recently, it has become a family restaurant. After serving 38 years worth of UK graduates, Bologna still has their business.

“I’ve had a couple have their first date in a booth, get engaged in that same booth and come back and eat in that same booth every week,” Bologna said. “But we try to keep the attitude of whether you are a college student or the richest person in town, we give the same service to everybody.”

Julia Taylor, a server at Joe Bologna’s said employee retention is high because staff members love the atmosphere and working there.
“I’ve been here off and on for five or six years,” Taylor said. “My father was the first dinner cook here and my mother one of the first waitresses.”
Bologna said some employees and three of his cooks have been with him for over 20 years.”

Bologna is from Detroit but says he’s been here so long he feels more like a Kentuckian now. Once chef at the Wildcat Lodge during Tubby Smith’s last four years as head coach at UK, Bologna said he would have a dine-in for the team on Thursdays and cook meals like pot roast, fried chicken, catfish and ribs.

These items aren’t on the menu at Joe Bologna’s, but dozens of traditional Italian dishes are. Joe recommends sandwiches like the Reuben and the Capicola Ham and Swiss.
“The hidden secret about Joe’s is the sandwiches, because Joe actually makes all the dressings here,” Taylor said. “I recommend the Chicken Broccoli Alfredo and the Vegetable Lasagna, which is a Joe B. original.”

Joe Bologna’s is famous for its big breadsticks which customers can purchase for $1.25.

“I think we do simple things well,” Bologna said sitting in a pew-like booth amidst the restaurant’s bustling congregation.