The History and Legacy of Leonardo Mirabile and Jasper’s Restaurant
By Diane Euston
Photos courtesy Mirabile family
The ambiance is unforgettable; the red carpet and dark carved wood as slick and striking as it was at its first location. The richness of the walls, filled with awards and photographed memories of the proprietors, welcomes guests into an authentic experience.
As the decor speaks to you of authentic Old World delights, the food speaks in fluent Italian laced with the perfect mixture of sweet and savory. For more than 60 years, the Mirabile family has created perfection with Italian cuisine for Kansas City natives and special guests.
The history of Jasper’s Restaurant starts well before the creation of their space at Watts Mill Shopping Center at 103rd and State Line. It was the vision of an ambitious Italian immigrant who took risks in order to leave a legacy behind.
On the Boat
Leonardo Mirabile was born in 1900 in Gibellina, Sicily. Leonardo, much like the millions of other southern Italian immigrants at the time, decided to take a gamble and move to America. According to descendants, Leonardo left home at the age of 16 and settled first in Louisiana near family. He never saw his parents again.
He worked at first as a baker in a relative’s store in Shreveport, La. and made his way up north to Kansas City for a brief time where his son, Jasper, was born in 1930. Leonard (as he went by in the states) then headed to New Jersey and opened his first grocery store there.
But Kansas City must have spoken to Leonard, because with his wife Josephine and Jasper in tow, the Mirabiles moved back to start a new business. Around 1944, he purchased Lucky Tavern at 1013 E. 12th St. and began slinging drinks for thirsty patrons. Nightly entertainment kept people staying late and sipping “legal beverages at popular prices.” Leonard continued operation of Lucky Tavern until 1954 when a calling further south slowly changed the destiny of the Mirabile’s contribution to Kansas City dining.
With the help of Jasper, Leonard began looking for new opportunities to open a saloon with his son’s name on the sign. He narrowed it down to three locations: the Savoy in the heart of the city, the Pink Poodle, future site of Brookside’s Charlie Hoopers, and an interesting spot in the heart of Waldo at 405 W. 75th St. With the streetcar station at 75th, Leonard and Jasper thought this could be a good location. Many thought it was a risk because of how far south it was.
On April 1st, 1954, they opened their doors to the public. Originally, Jasper’s was simply a bar with 12 tables tucked into a small space. Leonard and his son soon enlisted the help of Josephine in the kitchent. “Nana used to cook a couple dishes in the back to make people want to stay,” J.J. Mirabile explained.
Her Italian creations were a hit with the regulars.
Jasper’s Italian Fine Dining
Josephine’s homecooked meals were the precursor to what would become Kansas City’s oldest and well-respected authentic Italian restaurants. One of their early runs at food was simply advertised on a sign hanging sideways in their window: “Try a pizza pie.” At the time, the only other place in the city making pizza was the Majestic under the leadership of the Lusco family. “People didn’t know what pizza was then,” Leonard, grandson of Jasper Mirabile Sr. explained.
Around 1960, the Mirabile’s took over space of a toy store and a barber shop in order to enlarge their dining room. In 1962, Jasper’s was completely remodeled.
At the beginning, a three course meal for 79 cents was a popular option. A bowl of minestrone soup in 1957 would run you 25 cents and spaghetti with meatballs with a chef’s salad set you back 85 cents. As the menu morphed from items such as an Italian steak sandwich and fried tenderloin of trout, Jasper’s turned toward white tablecloth service and began offering Northern Italian delights such as Caesar salad, Scampi Livornese and Fettucine Alfredo.
Buying Out the Block
In addition to being a restaurateur, Leonard was also a successful businessman with an eye for real estate. In 1966, the Mirabiles were able to finally purchase the entire building as well as accumulate a parking lot behind their popular restaurant. They rented out shops along Wornall Rd. to different retailers. In 1975, the younger Leonard began working full time for the real estate company. Sadly, his Sicilian-born grandfather, Leonardo, passed away that same year.
By 1977, the Mirables owned everything from Milgram’s Grocery Store (now StorageMart) north to 75th St. Frankie’s Fruit Stand rented space at the corner of 75th and Wornall from the Mirabiles and continues their successful business today across the street from Jasper’s on 103rd St.
Expansion into Other Businesses
Leonard’s brainchild Eatsa Pizza opened in 1980 next door to Jasper’s in Waldo. Specializing in their “famous Eatsa Pizza,” Leonard also offered simple homemade pasta dishes and weekly specials. A three-alarm fire in December 1981 severely damaged Eatsa Pizza and a deli next door. Neighboring businesses, including Jasper’s, suffered water damage.
Eatsa Pizza only lasted two years, but the idea of expansion into other avenues past their white tablecloth Italian restaurant stuck. In 1984, J.J. (Jasper, Jr.) joined the family business as a full time employee.
The original Jasper’s was doing fantastic business, but the Mirabiles wanted to add something that Kansas City had never seen. The result was Marco Polo’s Groceria and Deli, a store offering ingredients from around the world for sale.
Upon opening, Leonard noticed something curious. “People would come in and order a pound of salami. Then, they would buy a loaf of Italian bread and ask for it to be sliced. Next thing we knew, they were leaving eating their own sandwich,” Leonard laughed.
That caught the attention of the Mirabiles. Instead of just having a deli and grocery store, why not add a trattoria? Trattoria’s were all over Italy, selling simple, prepared food with fresh ingredients. The grocery store started serving prepared food but renovations were underway to build onto this new concept.
In 1990, the Mirabiles cut an arch into Marco Polo’s and exposed the 2000 square feet of empty space next door. The space had a dirt floor and was partially made of stone. It turned out this space was the original Waldo livery stable, known to locals as the “Rock Barn.”
The grocery store became a deli, and the deli morphed into a restaurant trattoria. Each space kept the same message of authentic and skillful Italian cooking. The trattoria allowed for an informal dining space between the deli and the formal Jasper’s at 75th and Wornall. The slogan, “Don’t walk, don’t run. . . Trot with your girlfriend Maria to the trattoria,” graced advertisements. And people did come.
A New Location
In 1997, the Mirabile’s shocked their loyal patrons by making the decision to sell out to Walgreen’s. They moved further south to a shopping center they owned where they could expand, have more parking and merge many of their popular dishes into a new space. When Walgreen’s demolished the old buildings, they took with it part of the livery stable that did remain.
For a year, Jasper, Leonard, and J.J. built the new location at Watts Mill Shopping Center. Jasper was slowly stepping away from the business, and his sons were working to create a new space that still had some of the old charm of Jasper’s in Waldo. They chose to back off the white tablecloth service and build a more casual restaurant. The most popular dishes from each restaurant were put on the new menu.
Before demolition, Leonard and J.J. saved some old light fixtures, the fireplace mantle, mirrors, doors and artwork from the original location. They repurposed them into the new space at 103rd St. and even used the same pattern of carpet that was in the original location. In the dining room, a smaller room was built to the side. It was meant to be their father, Jasper’s, office. They cut a small window out so that their father could see the dining room.
“My dad never got to see it finished,” J.J. remembered. Before the restaurant was finished, Jasper passed away. Even as grief was still prevalent, the family continued on and were able to open. In 1998, they opened their doors to both Jasper’s and Marco Polo’s.
It’s no secret that Jasper’s is one of the best restaurants in Kansas City. J.J. trained as a chef and has become the face of the restaurant, writing several cookbooks and offering cooking classes in the restaurant dining room.
Football team owners, Hollywood stars, and other celebrities including Walter Cronkite, Ed McMahon, and several sitting presidents have come into the restaurant.
Cardinal Baum was a guest at Jasper’s and enjoyed his food so much that when he returned to Rome, he allegedly told Pope John Paul II, “One of these days I’ll take you on a plane and let you taste the best angel hair pasta you’ll ever have.”
Today, Leonard, Leonard’s son Jasper III (aptly nicknamed 3J) and J.J. continue to work together. There is always a Mirabile on the clock at Jasper’s. “We leave our mark on Kansas City as an authority of Italian cuisine. When you want an authentic meal, this is the place,” J.J. said.
Just shy of 65 years later, the Mirabiles show no signs of stopping. There is something very familiar about this place, as it seems to continue to stay relevant in an era where so many restaurants fail to survive. Jasper’s has stayed authentic and true to the Italian heritage– something that started in a small kitchen where their Nana whipped up meatballs in order to get people to stay.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com