When Leo Ambrogi opened the GW Delicatessen in 1945, Harry S. Truman had just taken office, the world’s first computer was still a few months away from completion and GW’s classroom buildings consisted of the Hall of Government and Lisner Auditorium.
Ambrogi passed away Jan. 14, one day shy of his 96th birthday.
“(Death is) always a shock,” his son John said. “But it helps that he lived a full life.”
A District native, Leo grew up on the second floor of a Florida Avenue building, where his Italian immigrant parents owned a delicatessen on the first floor.
He moved to Foggy Bottom in the 1920s and worked various jobs – including a four-year stint in the Marines – before opening his deli, a staple for GW students. In the late 1930s, Leo took classes at GW for two years but had to drop out because he was “busy making sandwiches,” said GW alumnus Cpl. John Graves, who knew Leo.
“He just took some courses because he lived nearby,” he said. “Running a deli like that is a full time job.”
The deli still sits at its original location at 2133 G St. and is run by Leo’s son, John. The character of the deli has changed somewhat over the years, moving from a grocery to a more convenience-style shop.
Leo worked in the deli until about five years ago. His favorite part about the work was that he loved to talk and enjoyed meeting people, his son said.
Karen Greisman, a Gelman Library secretary, said Leo’s sitting in the deli was a “very comforting presence.”
Graves remembers Leo placing an advertisement in the program for Freshman Follies, a campus-wide activity that raised money for CARE, a World War II charity.
Leo and his wife Maria had three sons, and each worked in the deli at one time or another. Maria also worked in the shop for 30 years, until she started staying home to be with Leo a year ago.
A man who rarely took vacations, Leo opened the deli early and stayed late.
“He was just such an institution around the University,” Graves said.
– Michael Barnett contributed to this report.