‘It’s like a big ol’ family.’ Joe Bologna’s Restaurant and Pizzeria celebrates 50th anniversary


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

Alexis Baker, Staff Reporter

Joe Bologna’s Restaurant and Pizzeria is widely recognized as a staple for the Lexington community, but its famous pizza and breadsticks aren’t the only thing that keep customers coming back time and time again.

The driving force behind the restaurant’s success is its owner — Joe Bologna. 

As a result of Bologna’s commitment to his establishment, patrons often feel more at home at the pizzeria than in traditional eateries. 

“It felt like a little neighborhood place,” Lois Gillespie, a Joe Bologna’s patron, said after eating lunch during the week of Joe Bologna’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Over the past 50 years, there has been hard work put into the restaurant to create this environment for the community. 

Leading up to the creation of the restaurant, Bologna said he was continuously surrounded by the food industry. He worked in fast food, washed dishes in his neighbor’s Italian restaurant, observed and recreated his grandmother’s recipes, cooked for 3,000 people in Vietnam while serving in the Air Force and taste-tested pizza crust around Lexington, failing to find one better than his wife’s. 

“My wife was making bread one day, she rolled it into the first pizza crust and she had some neighbors over, and they said that there’s nothing like that in Lexington,” Bologna said.

With his experience and recipes in hand, Joe Bologna opened his original location at 103 West Maxwell Street in Lexington before moving to its current location at 120 West Maxwell — a renovated Jewish synagogue, with its tall ceilings and stained glass windows still intact. 

For many businesses, this relocation may have been a risky move, but customers stayed loyal to Joe Bologna’s for its quality food and service.

Jane and Greg Hosley have been patrons of Joe Bologna’s since it was at its original location. They started dining at the restaurant in their 20s, and Greg is in his 70s now. Over the years, the Holseys said they’ve come to know Joe Bologna’s as inviting and unchanged and Bologna himself as a “sweetheart.”

Jane Hosley said that she participates in hospice volunteering in Frankfort, Kentucky, and when her organization hosts galas, Bologna always helps out.

“It hasn’t changed,” Greg Hosley said. “It’s still the same good tasting, good quality from 50 years (ago).”

The entrance of Joe Bologna’s serves as a stairway of history. There is an abundance of antique decorations and memorabilia that is capable of unearthing fond memories and invoking positive demeanors for all that enter. 

Currently, the memorabilia is appropriately juxtaposed near Bologna’s 50th-anniversary decorations. 

Over the course of Bologna’s 50 years running the restaurant, he said he faced challenges. One of a restaurant owner’s biggest nightmares came true for Bologna when kerosene got too close to the water heater. According to Lex Today, a fire broke out in 1979, and the restaurant shut down for 10 days.

Another shutdown was during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other restaurants, Bologna had to adjust to curbside service and socially distanced dining, but the restaurant prevailed. 

Bologna said that all of his employees came back after reopening and that most of them are still working at the restaurant today.

“I’ve had employees that have worked for me going on to their own professions saying working here made them put extra effort into their jobs and they were very successful,” Bologna said.

Three current lawyers who worked for him during college still come to the restaurant for a reunion.

“Those were always great memories,” Bologna said. “It’s fun to see them come back after that many years.”

Sue Coffey, a Lexington native and one of the employees, has been working at the restaurant for 27 years. With little experience, Coffey was hired by Bologna, who wasn’t in much need of employees at the time but hired her anyway.

Throughout Coffey’s over two decades at Joe Bologna’s, she has formed bonds with fellow employees, regular customers and Bologna, who she said treats her like a daughter. 

“It feels like you’re home,” Coffey said. “It’s like a big ol’ family.”