Chris Fanelli is not the original owner of Sausage Deli, but you’d never know it from the love he has for the sandwich shop located at Grant Road and First Avenue.
The Sausage Deli opened its doors in 1978 and quickly become a University of Arizona student favorite. But by 2003, the deli had fallen into obscurity; when Fanelli and his father, Joseph Fanelli, purchased it, it had been boarded up for a few months.
Fanelli describes those first years at the deli as being a family affair: his mom worked the register while his sisters and nieces staffed the kitchen. Eventually, Fanelli and his wife, Valerie, took over the business.
In 2012, after 35 years in the same adobe brick building on the east side of First Avenue, just south of Grant Road, development pressure from an incoming Walgreens presented Fanelli with an opportunity: the deli could relocate to a new building next to (and financed by) Walgreens. Fanelli described the new space as offering “a fresh look, more space for seating, and a larger patio without moving too far away.” Fanelli and his father designed the new restaurant together, and on Valentine’s Day of 2012, the original location of Sausage Deli closed its doors for the last time.
“We do miss the old shack,” says Fanelli. “We’ll never forget it, but we had an opportunity to build a bigger, better Sausage Deli.”
The former incarnation of Sausage Deli is not entirely forgotten: Shallow shelves line the walls surrounding the bar, showcasing as much of the original deli’s vintage beer bottle collection as would fit.
The bottles are not the only tribute to the Sausage Deli of old. The menu is pretty much the same as when Fanelli and his father took over. While he has considered replacing the menu items that don’t sell regularly, Fanelli points to one customer in particular to explain why he hasn’t. “There’s the one customer a week who gets the liverwurst sandwich—he’s the liverwurst regular—and I can’t delete it, because it’s worth it to that customer.”
“The one reason we’re still around is because of our regulars,” he says. When asked if he worries about competition from major sandwich chains moving into town, Fanelli shrugs. “They do cut into business, but what you pay for is what you get.” Instead, he focuses on quality ingredients and taking care of his customers. Sausage Deli’s bread is delivered from local wholesale baker Sun-Rise Baking each morning, and the meat and cheese is cut fresh daily, as are their vegetables—no previous-day prep for this sandwich shop. He counts on the quality of the deli’s food to create return customers.
When asked why people should support local businesses, Fanelli’s answer is simple. “We are what your community is made of.”
By the end of the day, roughly 20 dozen loaves of bread, one five-gallon bucket of pickles (also sliced fresh daily), and a lug and a half of tomatoes (about 64 tomatoes, Fanelli clarifies) will have gone into sandwiches. And there’s one more historical element of Sausage Deli that Fanelli is unwilling to change: the Italian dressing that creates the distinctive flavor of many of the deli’s sandwiches. “It costs $19 per gallon, but it’s the signature thing that ties everything together.”
Sausage Deli. 754 E. Grant Road. 520.623.8182.