By Steve Jusseaume
Seacoast Scene, July 30, 2014
HAMPTON BEACH - In early 1975 Gus D’Angelo, working at a restaurant in Hawaii, got a phone call from a friend back home, telling him of an opportunity in Hampton, New Hampshire. “He told me there was a space for lease at Hampton Beach that might be a good spot for a restaurant,” D’Angelo recalled the other afternoon, relaxing in the front dining room prior to dinner. The breakfast trade had come and gone and the wait staff was busily readying the spacious dining area for supper. D’Angelo reflected on the journey that took him from Lawrence, Mass., where he was born and raised some 84 years ago, to the heart of Hampton Beach, just south of the Casino on the main boulevard at the beach.
“I was running a restaurant in Hawaii. The guy said if you want to come back to the area, there is this place for lease. I came back and saw the possibilities here, and just took it from there.”
Forty years after that fateful phone call, D’Angelo’s restaurant, Mama Leone’s, is still in business and is one of the most popular eateries on the Hampton Beach strip. After taking a drive to Hampton and speaking with the building ownership, D’Angelo opened Mama Leone’s on July 2, 1974.
D’Angelo was just 44 years old back in the mid-70s and had already spent decades in the restaurant business. His career began when he was just 19 as a busboy in Miami. He graduated to bartender and over the years has worked in every aspect of the industry. “Every facet of the business but cook. I don’t cook,” he smiled.
He worked in Florida for years and in California (including a couple Playboy Clubs) before moving on to Hawaii. In 1974 he owned and operated a restaurant in Salisbury, Kate’s Steak and Pancake House, before it burned down and he moved on to the islands. “I think a discount place had been in this location in Hampton, we worked hard and spent some money fixing the place up and opened that summer,” D’Angelo recalled.
Literally hundreds of teenagers got their first taste of work at the restaurant, among them Sarah Clements and Leanne Mysliwy, two Winnacunnet High School students in the mid-1990s. “Working at Mama Leone’s was one of my first jobs, and my first job in the restaurant business,” recalled Clements, who lives in Brentwood now with her husband Scott. “That’s where I met Leanne, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
The two young girls spent most of their first summer at Mama Leone’s together in the kitchen. “Our only job was in the kitchen, taking care of the bread and making salads. Every customer got bread and we’d pull the bread from the oven and we were constantly making salads. I still have scars on my arms from the oven.
“It was the least responsibility I’ve ever had in a job, that’s probably the reason it was my favorite job. The place was crowded every night, people on the sidewalks out front, fireworks all the time. It was just a great fun job, and Gus was a good boss. He was a real character,” Clements said.
D”Angelo has overseen a lot of young people’s first foray into the working world, a fact that hasn’t changed in four decades. This summer he watches over a staff of about 45 full- and part-time employees. “Most of the young people who work here are good kids, they work hard,” he said.
“I find it hard to believe now that it’s been forty years, that we’ve been here for so long,” D’Angelo said. Today, Linda, his wife of 44 years, manages the dining room and Patrick Hayes is working his 15th season as manager of operations. Mama Leone’s features southern Italian food as well as steaks and seafood. “We’ve developed our own recipes over the years, which have for the most part remained constant, he said.
“The crowd has changed some over the past forty years, there seems to be a lot of younger people coming to the beach and into our restaurant,”
The menu at Mama Leone’s is extensive and inviting. The restaurant features a $9.95 ‘6 Before 6’ menu that includes fish & chips, veal parmigiana with pasta, eggplant & sausage, and pasta with meatballs. Breakfast features eggs and cantaloupe, pancakes, French toast, a cheese breakfast sandwich and bacon, sausage or ham, and omelets, all priced under seven dollars. Sides include bagels, an 8-ounce NY sirloin, muffins, as well as Bloody Marys and Mimosas.
Dinners feature seafood, Italian dishes, surf & turf and pastas. Favorites include filet of haddock Almandine, a broiled seafood pie, fried sea scallops, lobster ravioli’s, eggplant parmigiana Milan, chicken dishes, lasagna Neapolitan, spaghetti, ziti, and fettuccini, as well as steaks and surf & turf specials. Steamed mussels, fried calamari, and Italian wedding soup are also available, as are large and smaller salads, antipasto, and a Caprese plate. Desserts are ample.
Mama Leone’s is strictly a seasonal restaurant, opening in the spring and closing down in the fall, D’Angelo said, and while there have been a lot of positive changes at Hampton Beach over the years, he doesn’t see remaining open year-round. “It’s strictly seasonal here,” he said. “It’s pretty dead around here in the winter.”
At age 84, D’Angelo doesn’t foresee going anywhere anytime soon. “Everything has its lifetime… sometimes I can’t believe I’ve been here so long, but Hampton has been good to us,” he said. And his rule to running a successful restaurant is simple. “You cook good food, give people plenty to eat and charge a fair price… It’s worked for 40 years,” D’Angelo said, matter-of-factly.
Located across from the children’s playground at 113 Ocean Boulevard, on the corner of H Street, on the first floor of the Hillcrest Hotel, Mama Leone’s, with a seating capacity of over 100, is open for breakfast 7:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and for dinner from 4:30 to 9 p.m. The phone number is 926-5576. The extensive menu can be viewed at www.ilovemamaleones.com.