A Visit with Joe Bono
September 10, 2015
By Sam Allen
A couple weeks ago I was nearly 4,000 miles into a motorcycle ride that took me from Houston to the start of Route 66 in Chicago, then from Chicago to Rialto, California. Before heading home, I wanted to see if I could find Joe Bono, whose family has owned Bono's Deli on Route 66 in Fontana since 1936. Kumar Patel, who owns the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, told me Joe lives in a house behind the Deli, and if Joe was home he was sure Joe would be glad to speak with me.
I had met Joe nearly four years ago when I was gathering information for my book, The Motorcycle Party Guide to Route 66. The Deli was closed at that time but was scheduled to reopen in six months. I thought Joe had told me he was Sonny Bono's uncle, but after some digging, I realized that could not be so since Sonny and Joe were born in the same year. However, both Sonny's and Joe's parents immigrated to California from Sicily in the early 20th century. They must be cousins.
I called the Deli's phone number but got an answering machine with a computer generated salutation. I rode the eight miles to Fontana anyway hoping I could find Joe. When I arrived, I looked inside the Deli but no one was there. So I walked around back to the house and it looked empty too. I was about to leave when a familiar man shuffled around the corner. It was Joe and he said he would be glad to speak with me.
In 1936, Joe's mother opened an orange-shaped juice stand to augment the family's income. There were many similar stands along California's Route 66, but the Bono's was the first on the south side of the road. The remains of the original facility are near the seven foot tall orange that is on the site today. The new one was located about three miles away. Joe bought and moved it to his place in the 1990's. It is one of only six remaining orange-shaped stands in California.
As traffic along Route 66 increased, Joe's mother expanded her business to include the current Deli. She catered to the growing Italian community in and around Fontana and carried Italian foods that otherwise were unavailable in the area. Route 66 travelers were an important part of the Deli's business. Joe's mother would stay open until at least 11:00 at night to serve those customers. She also was a generous woman who understood the hardships of her day. Joe remembers that his mother often would feed large families in need without charge.
When Joe became old enough, he would work in the vineyards with his family. He would drive the trucks on which his father and older relatives would load the harvest. Those trucks still are parked at the edge of the Bono's now abandoned vineyard across the street from the Deli.
Joe speaks of his mother with reverence. She had only a fourth grade education, but she started and ran her Deli, and put her four children through college. Joe graduated from USC and the USC Law School. He later worked in the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office for ten years.
Fontana has seen dramatic changes along Route 66. Joe tells me that at one time there were over 50 vineyards around Fontana and now there are none. There also was a prosperous citrus industry with orange, lemon and grapefruit groves. They too are gone. Housing has replaced them.
Joe is a sweet and gentle man. He said he hopes to reopen the Deli in the next month or so, but he told me that four years ago. He tells me that his biggest impediment is navigating through the government bureaucracy for the necessary permits. But I get the feeling that what he really needs is the support his family provided throughout his life. He says "I sure could use my mother right now."
Sam Allen wrote The Motorcycle Party Guide to Route 66. He created and operates www.route66mc.com, which is the most comprehensive single source of information about Route 66 on the web.