Joseph L. Conti, 89, chef and restaurateur

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Joseph L. Conti, 89, of Colmar, retired chef at the Whitemarsh Valley Country Club and former restaurateur whose family turned their Casa Conti restaurant into a Glenside landmark that hosted countless weddings, banquets, club meetings and election night celebrations, died of heart failure on Friday, April 14, at home.  

Mr. Conti retired from the restaurant business in late 1987, but he soon found that free time wasn’t much fun. His family had sold Casa Conti, the expansive eatery on the corner of Easton and Jenkintown Roads that they had owned for nearly 70 years, and Mr. Conti missed the kitchen.

For decades, he had cooked the roast lamb and crab cakes and prepared such signature dishes as his famous coleslaw and pumpkin pie for customers who dined in the restaurant and partied in its 10 banquet rooms.  Now, Casa Conti was being transformed into the New Life Presbyterian Church.

 Mr. Conti told his daughter, Danielle Dalton, one of his 10 children, “I’ve got to do something.”  

When a friend told him that the Whitemarsh Valley Country Club was looking for a chef, Mr. Conti jumped at the chance to again be surrounded by pots and pans.

He worked at the club for 20 years, adding on to the decades he already had spent at Casa Conti, which his parents, Joseph D.  and Virginia, opened in 1919 after the couple purchased the old Weldon Hotel and turned it into the white-stucco restaurant.

 Mr. Conti was born in the house next door. In the early days, his family, including three siblings, lived there and worked at Casa Conti just steps away.

 “He was in the restaurant since he could walk,” his daughter said.

Mr. Conti eventually began working the “front of the house,” greeting customers and booking events. He later joined his father in the kitchen.

 Mr. Conti graduated from Abington High School in the mid-1940s, and was drafted soon after the ceremony. He served as a mess sergeant in the Army, stationed in Sendai, Japan, where he cooked three meals a day for 1,200 servicemen. He was discharged in 1947 and returned home to his family and the restaurant. He went on to study business at Temple University.

 He was married to Jean Gennette, and the couple had seven sons before they divorced.  In 1975, he married Helen Tsatsaronis, with whom he had three daughters. 

 Casa Conti was the place where area civic groups such as the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis held their luncheons and banquets, and families lined up outside to celebrate Mother’s Day.  In the 1970s, the restaurant also offered entertainment featuring comedians Henny Youngman and Norm Crosby and the psychic, the Amazing Kreskin.  Local Democratic and Republican parties held their monthly meetings and election night gatherings there for years.

 “You could always find [Mr. Conti] in the kitchen,” said Jon D. Fox, of Abington, a former state representative and Montgomery County commissioner. “He was humble, generous, very community-minded.”

 Mr. Conti retired for good in 2010 at age 82, when he left his job at the Whitemarsh Valley Country Club. He had few hobbies, but he was a member of the Lions Club and enjoyed waxing and detailing his car, whether it was the silver Studebaker he owned in the 1950s or his 1970s-era Lincoln Continental. 

 He continued to cook after he retired, making pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving until he became ill with a degenerative muscle disease of the esophagus that rendered him unable to swallow. Last Thanksgiving, too weak to cook, Mr. Conti sat on a kitchen stool and instructed his 13-year-old granddaughter, Kathryn, how to cook his famous pie.

 “It was incredible,” his daughter said.

 In addition to his wife of 42 years and his daughter, Mr. Conti is survived by sons Joseph, David, Steven, Mark and Paul; daughters Angela and Alicia; one brother; one sister; seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. He was preceded in death by his former wife, Jean, and sons Richard and Gregory.

 A viewing will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, at William R. May Funeral Home, 142 N. Main St., North Wales. A funeral Mass will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday, April 20, at St. Rose of Lima Church, 424 S. Main St., North Wales. (There will be no morning viewing.) Burial will follow at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham Township.   

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