First to the Valley, Celebrating a Tradition

Photo by Jeanine Fiser – Two tasty treats called Gelatis, layered Italian ice and custard, now available at Rita’s recently opened in the Sierra Pavilion Shopping Center by East Coast natives Dr. Benjamin Steinberg and his wife Dr. Jamie DePietro. On the left is mango Italian ice paired with cotton candy custard, on the right strawberry-watermelon ice and vanilla custard.

By Jeanine Fiser | Reporter

When South Jersey native Dr. Benjamin Steinberg moved to Fresno five years ago it meant leaving behind family, friends and an East Coast staple that is more than just a sweet treat: Rita’s Italian Ice.

The icy desserts served at Rita’s were a mainstay of Steinberg’s childhood and the surgeon said although he had little experience running a business, he felt a strong desire to bring part of his hometown’s culture to the Central Valley.

“It’s not just some crazy idea to make money, but a point of pride bringing my heritage out here,” Steinberg said. “My family and friends back home are all really proud. To be the first one to introduce it to people, it’s exciting to see the response.”

Steinberg, along with his wife Dr. Jamie DePietro, realized the hope of bringing Rita’s to Clovis by opening a store in the Sierra Pavilion Shopping Center on Shaw Avenue June 13, giving residents of Clovis and nearby areas a taste of le dolce vita. A grand opening celebration will be held on July 14.

Steinberg’s Rita’s joins the more than 30 other stores in California and over 600 locations in the country, but it is the first one to open in Fresno County.

“It was important to me to be the first person to introduce Rita’s to the Central Valley,” Steinberg said. “It was a lot of pride bringing what I grew up with to California, especially since it’s the first one in Fresno County.”

Rita’s originally opened during the summer of 1984, when former firefighter Bob Tumolo set up shop in Philadelphia. Tumolo named his store after his wife and worked with his mother to perfect their ice flavors. His commitment to quality that originally won over discerning Philadelphians is still carried on today, delighting customers across the nation.

“The ice is made fresh daily with real fruit and after 36 hours it’s thrown away,” Steinberg said. “So our saying is, ‘if it wasn’t made today, it’s thrown away by the end of the day.”

Consumers can enjoy any of the 65 rotating flavors of ice and 10 flavors of custard in several ways. Some of the most popular products include Italian Ices, Gelatis, a layering of custard and ice, and Blendinis, a mix of ice, custard and toppings.

Steinberg said Italian Ice is different from shaved ice in that it is incredibly soft. He said the ice owes its consistency to its production process that involves combining fresh fruit ingredients with water and running the mixture through an ice cream machine. Custard featured at the stores is not to be confused for soft serve, either. The egg-based dessert is far thicker and creamier.

At the Rita’s in Clovis 12 flavors are available each day. The most popular, Steinberg says, are mango and cotton candy. Fans can even subscribe to their favorite flavors on Rita’s website to receive email notifications when those flavors are part of the day’s offerings.

Rita’s also administers a loyalty program rewarding customers with a free item after eight purchases. The program is on Rita’s mobile app and requires only a scan at the register to begin tracking points. People can also enroll in Rita’s birthday club to get a free treat on their birthday.

In Clovis, Rita’s is already building a dedicated fan base. Brother and sister Carlos, 12, and Crystal, 16, Morales said, have eaten at Rita’s six times since it opened. For Carlos it was love at first bite.

“I gotta come here all the time,” Carlos said was his thought after his first visit.

Other members of the Morales family stuck with traditional fruit flavors like the popular mango, but Carlos and Crystal said their favorites included the Sour Patch Kids Red and Jolly Rancher Watermelon and Green Apple.

Steinberg said the more colorful and strong flavors are popular among kids, but he loves the classic lemon.

“When Rita’s first started it was only cherry or lemon, you just can’t beat the original,” Steinberg said. “It’s what I grew up on.”

Steinberg said Rita’s will be contributing to the community through in-house fundraisers for local organizations. He also said Rita’s nationally supports Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer and the company has raised $4.2 million for the charity. All month long, visitors to Rita’s of Clovis can donate by purchasing paper lemons for $1 that are hung up around the interior of the store.

Rita’s of Clovis will also support Valley Children’s Hospital through their grand opening on July 14. Steinberg said the event begins at noon, and the first 50 people in line who bring a donation to their toy drive will receive free ices for a year. Anyone in attendance until the event ends at 10 p.m. will be able to enjoy a free ice.

Rita’s of Clovis on Social Media:
Instagram: RitasofClovis
Snapchat: ritasofclovis