Pittsburgh Chiodo's Tavern / 'Mystery Sandwich'
Tue, 08/28/07 10:15 AM
Obituary: Joe Chiodo / Owner of historic Homestead tavern, served 'Mystery Sandwich'
Feb. 28, 1918 -- Aug. 26, 2007
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
By Caitlin Price, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Joe Chiodo had a hobby that most wouldn't consider a hobby: talking.
"He loved to talk to people. That's why he was there from the time the bar opened to the time the bar closed," said George DeBolt, a longtime friend.
That's how most will remember the revered owner of Homestead's historic Chiodo's Tavern, who died Sunday night at the age of 89.
Famous for organizing bus trips to Steelers games and his "Mystery Sandwich," Mr. Chiodo owned and operated Chiodo's Tavern for 58 years, until its doors closed in April 2005 when he sold the property to become a Walgreens drugstore. He spent those decades chatting with friends, entertaining the rich and famous, and cheering on his beloved Steelers.
His death marks the "passing of an era," said Mr. DeBolt.
That era began in 1927, when Mr. Chiodo came to Homestead from southern Italy. His father was a cobbler, and when rent became too high at his shop's location, Mr. Chiodo -- pronounced key-oh-doe, he insisted -- bought the defunct Old Dutch Kitchen beside what's now called the Homestead Grays Bridge to house the new shop. But the site was a bar, and Mr. Chiodo decided to run it for a while to see how it fared.
Chiodo's Tavern flourished and became a Homestead icon, famous across the region and beyond for its sense of community and eclectic interior. It was filled with everything from steel worker and sports memorabilia to brassieres of female customers who left them there "for Joe."
"In many ways, 'Cheers' was patterned after Chiodo's, where everybody knew your name," said Mr. DeBolt, whose family has been close with Mr. Chiodo since the 1950s.
Mr. Chiodo wanted the bar to be remembered as a family key in the community and he introduced everyone to one another.
When Tony Novosel stepped into the bar some 30 years ago, he didn't know a single person there. By the time he left, he knew at least 10 people, thanks to Mr. Chiodo's hospitality.
"How you treat people was just a great lesson I learned from him," Mr. Novosel said. He built such a strong relationship with Mr. Chiodo that "I always joked he was like a second father."
People from all walks of life came to experience Chiodo's Tavern -- from steel workers who still wanted a shot to college students seeking the imported beers the place had before fancy beer became trendy. Its expansive guest book featured signatures from all over the world. A group of Russian delegates visited the tavern during a conference, and many regarded it as the high point of their visit.
The bar had its share of celebrities, too. Joe Serkoch, one of Mr. Chiodo's four "McKees Rocks boys," said his daughter Christine took Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy to Chiodo's Tavern when he first bought the team. Ron Howard visited the bar during filming of his 1986 comedy "Gung Ho." Actor Karl Malden tried to visit Chiodo's Tavern during a taping of an episode of "Skag" only to be turned away because it wasn't open yet.
Mr. Chiodo wasn't always a sweet talker. Homestead Mayor Betty Esper said he had two personalities: "He could be as tough as a bar owner and he could be as sweet as a bar owner." He always enjoyed chatting it up but never allowed anything bad to happen in his establishment. In its almost 60 years of existence, she said, the police were never called.
The bar reflected Mr. Chiodo's love of the Steelers. A group of Chiodo's regulars had season tickets to games when the Steelers "stunk," Mr. DeBolt said. When the team started winning in the 1970s and the national news media asked the Steelers office where one could find a true fan, the office pointed them to Homestead.
Chiodo's "was the home of the Steelers fan before being a Steelers fan was cool nationally," said Mr. DeBolt, whose DeBolt Unlimited Travel always supplied Chiodo's with buses to the games.
His Steelers pride especially showed through in a rivalry with Cleveland Browns fans. Mr. Chiodo traveled to Cleveland in 1973 to visit Tony Wencke, a friend from his days in the Army. The two argued about which city had the better football team, which sparked a friendly competition.
Mr. Wencke and Mr. Chiodo purchased a trophy and agreed that the supporter of the team that had the highest cumulative points after the teams' match-ups would win it. A Cleveland-area bar -- Coho's Tavern in Bedford Heights -- got in on the fun.
The Chiodo Football Club, as it was called, also traveled to road games in Cincinnati, where Mr. Chiodo's brother was a priest. On game day mornings, Father Chiodo would celebrate a 20-minute Mass in the hospitality room of the hotel where the club stayed, said Mr. Serkoch, a club member from 1969 until it disbanded when the Steelers moved to Heinz Field.
The Steelers thanked Mr. Chiodo for his dedication to the team in the 1980s. Mr. Chiodo's picture was featured on a ticket to one of the games during the Steelers' 50th anniversary season because he was the longest holder of season tickets to that date, Mr. Serkoch said.
Aside from football and running his bar, Mr. Chiodo was a bit of a golfer and loved to travel. He especially enjoyed going to England and Italy -- "the old country."
Mr. Chiodo served in World War II. Bud Ward, a close friend and a regular at the bar, said Mr. Chiodo was proud to have landed on Normandy Beach three days after D-Day.
Mr. Chiodo's decision to sell the tavern was controversial among its fans and his friends. But he insisted that at age 86, he wanted to be able to spend some time at home in nearby Munhall with his wife, Florence.
"If the man is ready to retire, you had to go along with his wishes," Ms. Esper said. "Joe Chiodo was Chiodo's. Someone else coming in, it wouldn't have been the same."
Mr. Chiodo faced ill health in recent years, including being treated on dialysis.
"He just wore out," Mr. Ward said. "He was ready to go."
"It's a very sad day for all who knew him, who drank with him, who joked with him," Mr. DeBolt said. "I hate to see someone with that passion leave."
R.V. Anderson Funeral Home in Homestead will handle private funeral arrangements for Mr. Chiodo. The funeral home said the family did not want to release information about the services or surviving relatives.