Jonny Vitale shares an old Italian proverb about the secret to healthy life and longevity, “Olio nuovo e vino vecchio,” new olive oil and old wine. In 2019, when Vitale returned to his family’s place of origin, the island of Sicily in Italy, his goal wasn’t life, longevity, or olive oil, it was to complete graduate level studies at the MIB School of Management in Trieste. The Wyoming Park High School alum ended up with much more: a wife, Debora Leone, a new baby, due in May 2021, and a new business — Vitaleone Olive Oil
. This love story commenced in the traditional manner, with Vitale’s aunt encouraging Leone’s mother to invite him over for dinner.
“As you know, Sicilians can cook and this was the real deal,” Vitale says. “I fell in love twice that day. Once with Debbie and once with the olive oil. My reaction to the olive oil was, ‘Wow this is different. It smells different, tastes different.’”
The Leone family had been picking the olives to make their own olive oil for nearly a century. As Vitale’s relationship with Deborah deepened, so did his fascination with the family’s olive oil. A graduate class assignment inspired his next steps.
“One of the projects was to create an export business involving an Italian product. I picked olive oil,” he says. “I said to Debbie, ‘Look, there’s really an opportunity to do this and make it real.’ When COVID-19 hit, we had the time to put our heads down and create this.”
The result was Vitaleone Olive Oil.
“My wife’s name was Leone and mine was Vitale so if you put the two together, you have Vitaleone,” he says.
Before long, Vitale was joining the extended Leone family on ladders as they hand-picked olives for their delicious olive oil. He learned the importance of not bruising the fruit to prevent oxidation. And the Leones shared their secrets for extracting the finest oil from the olives.
“Our olive variety is native to Sicily, only grown in Sicily. It has different taste notes. We don’t mix olives, don’t mix types of oils, and do the process the Leones have been doing for 100 years,” Vitale says. “As soon as you pick the olives, a ticking time bomb starts. The sooner to the press, the more health benefits, flavor and freshness.”
To prove his point, Vitale cites a 2016 “60 Minutes” exposé
of the olive oil industry.
“In the US, most olive oil is of lesser quality. For a food that is massively used, what we find is that a lot of it is rancid, falsified, or mixed with other oils,” Vitale says. “I think it’s important, with the pandemic and everything going on, that we focus a lot of attention on our health. This olive oil is as healthy of a food as you can buy. Consumers are cooking with it, baking with it, putting it on their skin. It is incredibly healthy for you.”
While Vitale currently remains in Italy to help with the business, Grand Rapids-area folks can pick up a bottle of Vitaleone Olive Oil in Wyoming at Vitale’s parent’s restaurant, Frankie V’s
. It can also be ordered online for home delivery at the Vitaleone.com shop
“It is truly one of the healthiest things you can put in your body,” Vitale concludes. “Unfortunately, in the US we don’t know the source of a lot of our food and we don’t know what we are consuming. This has led to obesity, heart disease and a lot of health problems. The thing I want to drive home is the health benefits of the olive oil. It’s really nature’s medicine.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photo courtesy Vitaleone Olive Oil