Ben Laurenzo and his store.EXPAND
Ben Laurenzo and his store.
Courtesy of David Laurenzo

Ben Laurenzo, Founder of Laurenzo's Italian Market, Dies

The guy behind South Florida's best market — and that is saying something — left this world recently.

Ben Laurenzo, the genius of Laurenzo's Italian Market in North Miami Beach, died of a liver ailment January 15. A half-century ago, the man who at the age of 15 entered the military and survived a hydrogen bomb explosion at Bikini Atoll, founded the store that has given us reasonably priced and amazing wine, feta, olives, cold cuts, and much more. He was 89 years old.

Laurenzo was was born in Schenectady, New York, September 18, 1928, son of Achilles Laurenzo and Estherina Cassella. "He liked to tell people he never missed a paycheck from when he was 5 years old," his son David says. "He delivered the Saturday Evening Post in a little red wagon."

Among the stories he would tell: When he was a kid, his mother made him dress in purple knit knickers and take violin lessons. "He told me: 'David, I got in a fight every day,'" the younger Laurenzo recalls. "But then he couldn't take it anymore, so when the car was backing up, he put the violin under the wheels. He said, 'David, I just decided I was taking my beating.'"

He entered the military and was sent to Pearl Harbor after the Japanese invasion. He had faked his birth certificate to enter early and boarded one of the oldest battleships in the fleet, the USS Arkansas, and sailed to experience the H-bomb test there as part of one of the Navy's dumbest experiments ever.

Soon he moved to South Florida, where he was soon delivering gourmet fare from the Keys to Palm Beach. In 1964, he opened Laurenzo's Italian Market. He awoke every day at 4:30, and when he and his wife Millie had kids, they would work at the market too.

The place was a magnet for stars, including Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. One famous customer was Jack Nicholson, to whom Laurenzo delivered hot peppers around the world for years.

In the '60s and '70s, Laurenzo pioneered the gourmet wine business, bringing in famous vintners such as Robert Mondavi and Louis Latour. 

"The place is a TV show," David says. "You have the League of Nations of truck drivers going on in the back and every person, from wealthy to working-class, coming in the front. It is a collision of people from everywhere."

Ben Laurenzo is survived by his sister Esther Kirk; cousin Doran Jason; children Dona, David, Carol, Laura, Robert, and Danielle; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. The family requests donations in Ben's memory be sent to Stand Up to Cancer and Danny & Ron's Rescue.

Michelle Sandberg contributed to this report.

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