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Beloved restaurant-owner Joe Bologna to retire after a life in the business

Abbey Cutrer
Joe Bologna stands in front of his portrait on the 50th Anniversary of his pizzeria on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, at Joe Bologna’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Abbey Cutrer | Staff

Joe Bologna’s Italian Pizzeria and Restaurant opened its doors in 1973. Bologna has decided it’s time to retire as the locale’s owner. 

“Even though I’m retiring, whoever I sell it to, I would still plan to work for them for a year or so as a consultant, advisor for different things,” Bologna said. “You know, I might be able to have a couple years, I don’t know, as long as I feel good.”

With the renewal of a five-year lease coming up, Bologna — nearing 80 years old — was unsure if he wanted to commit to five more years. 

Bologna has been working in restaurants since he was 15. In 1965, he joined the Air Force cooking for soldiers for four years, even cooking for around 3,000 soldiers in Vietnam during his last year in the service

“After six months I had called up a general, I applied for a general’s aid job. He called me up and we talked for an hour and he said ‘You’re good to start tomorrow.’ So I went from 3,000 men to one man and from 90-100 degree barracks with 60 guys to my own air-conditioned trailer,” Bologna said. 

After his four years in the Air Force, Bologna knew how to cook, but he decided he needed to learn how to manage restaurants. 

When his best friend, who lived in Frankfort, married a woman in Lexington, Bologna and his wife came down for the wedding and looked up his old general in the phonebook. Shortly after, the two then moved to Kentucky.

“My wife was making bread one day and rolled it into the first pizza crust and had some neighbors over and they said ‘Well, there’s nothing like that in Lexington,’ and so I went around, trying all the pizza places and I said, ‘They were all frozen crusts and nothing was made fresh,’” Bologna said. 

His father got him a loan of $2,000 from the Knights of Columbus to open the restaurant. 

“With my wife working and supporting me, I’d work 16 hours a day for two years,” he said. 

In his first week of having the restaurant open, he earned $635. 

“We really took a while to develop, but it grew at 19% of every previous week for two years straight,” he said. “It was an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m sort of having the same rush experience now because of retirement. We jumped 35% and I’m doing more business than I ever have.”

When starting the business, Bologna said there was no quality like it in Lexington.

“I must admit that it was God’s plan because it was like no competition. There was nothing even close,” he said. “Not only are there no pizza places, there was no good place to eat on the campus. Nobody liked the cafeteria, it was worse then than it is now.”

Bologna served the Kentucky men’s basketball team in their residence hall during coach Tubby Smith’s last four years at the university. 

“That was just a fun thing to do, you don’t make any money doing it, you get paid but, they got more for more value than most people,” Bologna said. 

Bologna said once the restaurant was established, it was just the place to go in Lexington.

“All my senior citizens that are in their 80s, they were all college students back then,” he said. “We got a lot of customers coming from the 70s that are still coming in now.”

Growing up in East Detroit, Bologna would go to his grandparent’s house for dinner every Sunday. His grandparents came to the U.S. from Sicily. Everything his grandmother prepared for dinner was made from scratch, he said, and his grandfather made his own wine at home.

Bologna said the best food he ever had was what his grandmother cooked for him. 

“Without a question, I tried to duplicate a lot of her tastes, but I didn’t have recipes,” he said. 

The original location of Joe Bologna’s was across the street from the restaurant’s current location. They moved locations in 1989. 

“After our first year, it was always an hour wait to get in, and we served ‘til two in the morning,” he said. “Back then, they would have a line for a five-hour wait at 5:00 ‘til 10:30.”

Bologna worked through all of those late hours with his staff.

“It was an energized place. It was small, everybody knew each other. I probably broke every fire violation there was,” Bologna said. 

Bologna remembers 10-year-old Ashley Judd “working” for him. 

“Her dad worked for me back in ‘74, he’d come in from time to time and he brought his little girl, and apparently, when we were talking, she’d walk up and tell people ‘Can I take your order?’ Might have been her first acting job,” he said. 

Another time, Colonel Sanders visited the restaurant, describing Bologna’s popular breadsticks as “finger-lickin’ good breadsticks.”

During his upcoming retirement, Bologna wishes to travel. 

“I’ve got a cousin that lives in Whitefish, Montana that I probably haven’t seen in 40 years,” he said. “I thought I’d like to see the Northwest. Might like to go back to Sicily where my grandparents grew up.”

Bologna has been getting his tomato products from a company in Southern California for 50 years, a place he said he may also visit during his retirement. 

Bologna said he is grateful for his establishment allowing him to do what he’s passionate about. 

“Just being here and doing what I love, and you know, so many customers coming in with stories and just being here,” he said. “Being successful doing what you enjoy doing is very satisfactory, even though you live with the ups and downs.”

The process of retiring has been sentimental for Bologna. 

“When I started off I just said you know, ‘It’s just about time,’ but then as I’ve gone along, it’s becoming sentimental with so many customers that have great memories of their family, birthdays, anniversaries, the things that I’ve done for them through the years,” he said. “It just feels so good that there’s so many people that love and care about you.”

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Lilly Keith, Assistant News Editor
Abbey Cutrer, Editor-in-Chief

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  • R

    Roger DearnaleyApr 24, 2024 at 12:03 am

    I was a freshman at UK in 1974. In my four years, I visited many times. It was down the street from my fraternity house on Maxwell Street. After college, I stopped by on visits to Lexington. I hope they can keep the place going. Joe deserves a nice retirement. I am younger than he is and I am retired now.

  • D

    Dona RainsApr 19, 2024 at 3:49 pm

    As a long-ago staffer for the Kernel, I loved this story! I moved to Lexington in 1973 and frequently enjoyed Joe Bologna’s, especially those breadsticks. Long after my college days, a trip from Paducah to Lexington meant a visit to Joe B’s. I’m lucky to have taken my children and now my grandchildren to this iconic place. All the best to Joe!

  • P

    Patty McAlisterApr 19, 2024 at 3:15 pm

    Joe, I worked for you and my dad Russ, in all four of your restaurants. I loved every minute of it. There will never be another Joe B’s like you gave us. Best food ever. Good luck to you and Anne in your retirement. You deserve some great travels and a little rest. I’ll miss you Joe.

  • E

    Elizabeth SmithApr 18, 2024 at 2:51 pm

    I love Joe B’s and have been a customer since Joe had a location on Southland Drive. I could ride my bike and get a breadstick. Then as a UK student, I would go frequently. My dad was good friends with Joe since they did youth soccer together. Mom and Dad would go to Joe B’s and Joe would always come out to talk to them. I introduced my husband and now every time we come to Lexington we have to eat there. My daughter went to UK for a while and would also eat there. So 3 generations have enjoyed Joe’s food for 50 years. Good luck in retirement, Joe!

  • A

    Ann Morton ClaytonApr 18, 2024 at 12:01 pm

    I worked as a hostess in 1980 after getting my masters degree from UK. Joe was such a great boss. I worked early morning shift and would walk in to smell fresh baked breadsticks. We would eat them with melted butter and honey for breakfast.
    Happy Retirement, Joe! Blessings on this new adventure!

  • J

    JanetApr 18, 2024 at 9:52 am

    I’m glad for Joe to retire and do things he’s wanted to do, but sad for the people of Lexington who have loved his restaurant. Every time I come back for a visit, visiting Joe B’s is a top priority❣️

  • S

    Susan WhiteApr 17, 2024 at 4:51 pm

    After 2 Keys it was the next place my freshman year in 1973. I could not count the bread sticks I have eaten over the years, plus pizza, zucchini Parmesan. You are the best and reside in the memories of many a UK student. God bless you Joe B

  • M

    MikeApr 17, 2024 at 2:05 pm

    My sister MaryEllen worked for Joe back in the late 70s. I remember the first restaurant. I eventually moved to Maysville, Kentucky and my wife and I made a trip to the second location, the church, for lunch after we got our kids off to school. It was a 60 mile drive but well worth it. I remember other times where Joe would come out to talk to the crowd and he actually sat down with my kids. I hope you have a wonderful retirement. 30 years later and I still brag about your pizza.

  • D

    David WattsApr 17, 2024 at 12:16 pm

    Always a great place tp eat. Best breadsticks in the world!!

  • J

    Jim WoodsApr 17, 2024 at 10:41 am

    I am from the UK Class of 1975 so I was there from the beginning. I would go to the old location and I was a “regular”. It was such a special place where everybody new each other and everyone enjoyed each other. Thanks for all the good food and especially the good memories. Happy Retirement Joe!!

  • L

    Linda FarrellApr 16, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    I hope you have many years of retirement! Eat, Drink and be Merry!