In 1912, a few crucial world events occurred. The Titanic sank; New Mexico and Arizona become states; the Oreo debuted on store shelves. And if you were in Tampa, Alessi Bakery opened its doors. Still hugely successful 106 years later, it’s doing something right.
“It’s really cool when you walk into airports and stores and you’re wearing your Alessi shirt,” says Phil Alessi Jr., the fourth-generation owner. “People come up to you and say, ‘My grandmother got her cake from Alessi and then my mother, and now my children do.’ It’s neat seeing the generations grow with us.”
Founder Nicolo Alessi, Phil’s great-grandfather, came to Tampa from Sicily in 1912 and started a small bakery to provide for his family. Alessi initially specialized in baking fresh Cuban bread, and his son, John, began the enormously popular decorated cake business in the 1930s. Today, Alessi Bakery (which is not affiliated with the Alessi family of Vigo Importing Co.) has become nationally recognized for its Cuban sandwiches, guava pastries, Italian tea cookies, and of course, scachatta and cakes — all made from scratch.
“It’s difficult in this area to find bakeries that actually make everything from scratch the way that we do using recipes that we’ve used for decades,” says Melissa Maggiore, Alessi Bakery’s head cake decorator.
Maggiore has been with Alessi for nearly 18 years. She creates all of the bakery’s wedding cakes and the vast majority of its tiered cakes, including treats for Taylor Swift’s Tampa tour stop in 2015 and birthday cakes for Jon Bon Jovi and Joan Jett.
“We do a lot of thinking outside of the box,” Maggiore says. “There’s a lot of bakeries that will do specialty cakes, but most of the time they don’t take it to the level that we can take it.”
Beyond the bakery, the Alessi family has a somewhat surprising side gig. Inspired by a lifelong love of boxing fostered by local promoter Lou Viscusi, Phil Alessi Sr. founded Alessi Promotions in 1967. Names like Joe Frazier and Marvin Hagler fought on Alessi’s more than 400 boxing cards. A photo of Muhammad Ali perusing the Alessi bakery case still hangs in Phil Alessi Jr.’s office. He says he plans to keep the promotion business going, in part as a tribute to his father’s legacy.
“It was a pretty neat thing getting to meet the cast of characters, as he used to call them, in the boxing world,” Alessi says. “It’s something I want to keep going because it’s a passion of mine, and it was a passion of my dad’s.”
Phil Alessi Sr. passed away in May and is widely credited for creating the business that exists today. At just 16 years old, he opened the first of five bakeries across the Tampa Bay area, consolidating them all back into the Alessi Bakery that exists today when the company moved into its home on Cypress Street in the 1960s.
Alessi Sr. also expanded the business into wholesale manufacturing to compete with in-store bakeries at supermarkets, eventually striking a deal with Publix to sell Alessi baked goods in stores. Alessi Bakery operates a 100,000 square-foot facility in Carrollwood that now produces around 150 baked goods for the grocer, along with Kroeger, Walmart and Harris Teeter in North and South Carolina.
“My dad really took it to the level it’s at today,” Alessi Jr. says. “It’s his fingerprints on there.”
The younger Alessi says his father imparted the importance of quality, consistency and customer service on his family and staff, creating a good work ethic throughout the generations.
“One of the things he always taught me was you’ve got to wake that baby up in the morning and put it to sleep at night,” Alessi says. “You can’t live on reputation. I live by that, and I teach my children that every day.”
Like he and his siblings did, Alessi’s kids — who range in age from 5 to 15 — spend their free time helping out around the bakery, making sandwiches, assisting cake decorators and ringing up customers.
“They know the point-of-sale system better than I do,” Alessi jokes.
Within in the next 18 months, Alessi says the company plans to expand with a second, smaller cafe elsewhere in Tampa serving a limited product line. Though they have not yet chosen a location, Alessi has an eye on the future with a firm hold on the key to the company’s success.
“One of my goals, to show gratitude to some of the people who have been here a long time, is for them to have their own store that they can run,” he says. “We have a wonderful staff. Without them it’d be very, very difficult. We take a lot of pride in them.”