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Special Request: Gioia's makes chicken salad by hand — literally

Special Request: Gioia's makes chicken salad by hand — literally

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Special Request - Gioia's Deli chicken sandwich

Chicken Salad sandwich at Gioia's Deli, on Macklind, in St. Louis, on Thursday, July 11, 2019. Photo by Hillary Levin,

Q • Any chance you guys could get the recipe for Gioia’s chicken salad? It would be great to make this summer. — Emily Ebeling, St. Louis

A • Although Gioia’s chicken salad isn’t nearly as famous as its hot salami, it’s still a year-round customer favorite at the deli on the Hill. This light and flavorful salad does make for a cool summer meal. When we called the deli, owner Alex Donley referred us to the source for this recipe, his mother, Cathy Donley, who first made this now-classic menu item in 1995.

“I got involved when the deli became too much for my mother to run alone,” Cathy Donley says. Her parents had bought the long-standing Italian deli known for its hot salami sandwiches in 1980. “When I came in, I brought in the chicken salad, as well as sides like our picnic potato salad and deviled eggs.

“I was a mom with three boys, and these were recipes I made at home. My girlfriends and I often exchanged recipes. That’s how I found the tortellini salad, which has been one of our bestsellers,” she says. “We gave the Post that recipe in 2014.”

Cathy Donley’s recipe calls for baking chicken breasts with water or broth, chopping the cooled pieces, then adding the mayonnaise while the chicken is still warm. “It keeps the chicken moist,” she says.

She hand mixes the celery, onion, spices and Duke’s mayonnaise into the pieces using gloved hands. The process makes for great texture and distributes the dressing throughout the salad.

Today, Gioia’s makes and sells 90 pounds of chicken salad each week. “Once, we tried bringing in a premade chicken salad from one of our suppliers,” Donley says. “I had one man, a regular, who called me out of the kitchen to ask what happened. ‘It’s not real,’ he said. ‘You didn’t make this chicken salad.’ So — we make it in house. We are a customer-focused business.”

Although Donley still helps out at the deli during busy times, she’s no longer in the deli and in the kitchen every day. “Before I left, I had to write out all my recipes, the things I’d made for so long just by doing. That’s why it wasn’t hard to share this recipe,” she says.

Gioia’s gained national attention at the James Beard Awards in 2017 as one of five restaurants nationwide honored as America’s Classics that “serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities.”

For Donley, the recognition validated what she and her family have done every day at the deli. “We’re not chefs. We’re cooks. We share our family recipes. We take care of our customers. The customers come to Gioia’s because they want to be here.”


Gioia’s Deli

1934 Macklind Avenue


903 Pine Street


623 North New Ballas Road, Creve Couer

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