Isaly’s: A Recipe for Good Food

Canonsburg Isaly’s storefront sign at night, c. 1950. Author collection.
Canonsburg Isaly’s storefront sign at night, c. 1950. Author collection.

Isaly’s price list, c. 1950. Author collection.
Isaly’s price list, c. 1950. Author collection.

As I prepare my second book on Isaly’s, I’m often asked if I have found the company’s old recipes, from beloved baked beans to their famous ham salad. Everyone has a favorite — when I was growing up, it was Isaly’s macaroni and cheese that I looked forward to each trip. Years later, I would experiment with my own recipe, trying to recreate the taste I remembered.

I was lucky to acquire one of the company’s recipe books from Tom and Gail Weisbecker, who ran the Isaly’s in West View. The books — actually red-bound binders — were used for making the stores’ daily lunch specials. The pages in the West View binder are well-worn and tattered, with some penciled-in tweaks to the company-sanctioned instructions. They are fun to read, especially when they are made for serving dozens of customers.

Tom started working with Isaly’s in the 1960s, so by the time I met him in the 1990s, he didn’t need the book. Today, he still recalls that rice pudding was a big seller back then, as was a hot dog baked with cheese and bacon. As we both tried to recall its exact name, there it was in the binder: the grilled wonder pup. Why that recipe has an X through it though, we don’t know — maybe it went out of favor as customers began asking for healthier options?

Isaly's recipe for ham loaf. Author collection.
Isaly's recipe for ham loaf. Author collection.
Author recipe for grilled wonder pups. Author collection.
Author recipe for grilled wonder pups. Author collection.

These two worker photos were donated recently to the History Center by Susan DeDomenic Williams. Standing outside the Isaly’s in Etna is Susan’s grandfather, John Michael Walsh, with one of the deli workers in 1951. The counter shot, taken in March 1957, shows John on the right, possibly at Sewickley where he was a manager. All the Isaly’s hallmarks are there, from cold cuts, olives, and cheeses to ice cream bricks, which were smaller than a half-gallon for when home freezers were still tiny.

John Walsh outside the Etna Isaly’s, 1951. John M. Walsh Sr. Photographs, 2017.0118, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.
John Walsh outside the Etna Isaly’s, 1951. John M. Walsh Sr. Photographs, 2017.0118, Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center.
John Walsh, possibly in the Sewickley Isaly’s, 1957. John M. Walsh Sr. Photographs, 2017.0118, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
John Walsh, possibly in the Sewickley Isaly’s, 1957. John M. Walsh Sr. Photographs, 2017.0118, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.

If you worked at Isaly’s and took pictures, please consider donating your photos to the History Center’s Detre Library & Archives. Learn more about today’s Isaly’s company.

Brian Butko is the director of publications at the Heinz History Center and the author of Luna: Pittsburgh’s Original Lost Kennywood and Kennywood: Behind the Screams, along with several other books.

8 thoughts on “Isaly’s: A Recipe for Good Food

  1. Great article on one of my favorite places as a kid and adult. I remember the wonder pups!! So good! Thank you for another step back in memory lane Brian.

  2. I worked at Isaly’s in downtown at 6th and Bigalow. My first manager was Jim McMahon and my second manager was Earl Imler. Our store number was #58. I was a member of Local 237 of the Restaurant and Bar Tender’s Union and I still have my dues book. Cost $4 a month for dues and that was expensive when you were making $0.75 per hour!

  3. Every Sunday we would get chipped ham / choc chip ice cream and a kit kat bar go home and watch the wonderful world of Disney I’m from Vandergrift Pa the good old days

  4. My grandfather, Joe Parapot, worked at Isalys on Blvd of the Allies. I remember that he took me on a tour behind the scenes in the late 1960s to see how ice cream was made and we went home with a package of Party Slices with shamrocks. Yum!

  5. In the 1957 photo of my Dad, John Michael Walsh, I believe the lady is Mrs. Palmer. I remember a lady named Marge who worked there too. I loved the sky scraper ice cream cone was my favorite.

  6. When I was young, on a hot summer night my mom and dad would drive us to the “big” Isaly’s in Oakland for a sky scraper ice cream cone. My all time favorite was Chocolate Almond Fudge. My dad would always get the White House and my mom got the Butter Pecan. Loved those days. It seemed to perfectly cool us off as there was no central air in our house back then.

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