The third thing I ate when I moved from San Francisco to Tucson 12 years ago was the Omar sandwich from the Sausage Deli. This came after a quasi-religious experience with the Sonoran hot dog earlier that day. So, to have a nearly perfect sub sandwich give me a head rush after I'd eaten a bacon-wrapped weenie with all the fixins made me realize I had found the right city to call home.
This year, Sausage Deli turns 40 years old—not bad for a joint that originally started out as a milk depot. The Silver Dollar Drive-In was built in 1957 with burnt adobe, yet failed to drum up business so it closed soon after it opened, sitting empty until the late '60s. A livestock supply business didn't last long and then a Polish couple bought the property and began selling freshly made sausages, changing the name to Sausage Deli. Just six months into their run, the Sausage Deli was sold to a couple from New York by the name of Frank and Muriel Dreher, who started selling German phonograph records and groceries along with their specialty sausages.
It was in 1978 that the Sausage Deli we know today began to formulate. A man by the name of Steven Kleinsmith bought out the elderly German couple and decided to make sandwiches instead of sausages. But he still kept the name—which confused a lot of people (and still does today). By the '80s, most of the UA students were fans, so Kleinsmith had to expand by adding an outdoor picnic table. A whole picnic table!
Kleinsmith owned the Sausage Deli until 2004, when the current owners, Chris and Valarie Fanelli, bought the property and name before moving to its new permanent location in 2013.
"Steven was just burned out, and he wanted to shut it down," Valarie says. "So he brought in Chris as a manager. Chris had always wanted to own his own business and when the opportunity arose we just took it and ran with it."
Between Valerie's experience in marketing and Chris' background in construction, neither had a lot of understanding of how to run a sandwich shop. So they turned to people familiar with the Sausage Deli to get the training they needed to run the joint.
"A few of the original employees from the '80s and '90s actually came back and showed me how to properly make the sandwiches," Chris says. "In fact, one of those original employees has come back to work in the deli with us today. There's just something about this place, I guess."
Oh, I can think of a few "somethings" that might lure an old deli dog to return after all those years. Perhaps they missed making the Sausage Deli's top seller, the Italian Grinder, a meaty mix of salami and pastrami topped with peppers, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and herbed dressing. Or its second cousin, the Susie Sorority, featuring turkey, Havarti and sprouts on whole wheat. For me though, it has to be what is often referred to as "breathtaking."
The Fanelli's claim that a man named, yes, Omar, who worked at the Deli decades ago, came up with the combination. On paper it seems simple enough: salami, turkey, Swiss cheese, peppers, onions, mustard and Italian dressing, then microwaved. Yet for some reason the sandwich as a whole is a wink at the divine. In its modesty, there is joyful complexity. There are no words of explanation. Just eat one and you'll see.