LEO STASSINOPOULOUS , LEO’S CONEY ISLAND
The beaming face of Leo Stassinopoulos, founder of Leo’s Coney Island, is so well known that he’ll tell you he’s recognized in Mexico… even in Alaska. A self-starter who came from a small rural town outside Kalamata, Greece, he followed his brother Peter to Detroit in the Sixties, worked a series of odd jobs as he honed his skills (learning English and American culture bit by bit), ultimately opening the first Leo’s in 1972.
Known for its Greek salad as much as for chili-smothered all-beef dogs, Leo’s is a Metro institution which today boasts twenty-seven locations serving a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner items. Coney Island hotdogs remain the core of the menu, of course. Leo is justifiably proud of his commitment to quality ingredients, which in many ways lies at the foundation of his astonishing success, which these days has expanded to include Zoe's Pancake House.
These spicy treats have much closer ties to Detroit than they do with the same-named amusement park in Brooklyn, New York, so a bit about their origin is perhaps in order. It’s said that the ‘genuine’ coney dog is a specific beast: a hotdog dressed in beanless chili topped with raw onion and mustard. That’s it, though you’re welcome to enjoy yours any way you want. The first of what is today hundreds of coney restaurants in Detroit, American Coney Island was founded in 1917 by Constantine ‘Gust’ Keros, who’d immigrated here from Greece in 1903, followed quickly by Lafayette Coney Island, opened by Gust’s brother. A friendly rivalry began which continues to this day, carried on by the Keros progeny! (Interestingly, another contender, George Todoroff, once claimed that his restaurant outside the train station in Jackson, was the original, sending the coney island hot dog’s Michigan roots even deeper…)
Despite the ‘Big Apple’ moniker, Coney Island restaurants in Detroit will always have a Greek flavor, and the more upscale they become, the more sophisticated the menu items are, including such Greek delicacies as shish kebab, souvlaki, chicken kebab, tzatziki, spanakopita, and saganaki. Leo points out that despite the rivalries, most Detroit-area coney restaurant owners are friends, many are related, and nearly all come from the same area in the Peloponnese. “Lot’s of us grew up together, speak the same dialect, and share a love of Greece—our part of Greece in particular, that keeps us close.”
Leo’s commitment to Detroit is as evident, and among the many charity events to which he contributes, none perhaps is so touching than his work with Children’s Hospital of Michigan, where his late son was once a patient. In 2004, he was involved in a fund-raising effort during which he created Detroit’s largest Greek salad, which he tossed himself. “It took five hundred heads of lettuce, fifty pounds of feta cheese, and ten gallons of our famous Greek salad dressing” he recalls fondly.
It is community support like this, combined with the commitment to quality that keeps Leo’s at the head of the Coney Island class.