Story Headlines: Brass Rail Retires | Great headlines in history
It was a damp April night with the rain falling in sheets. But inside the Brass Rail restaurant on Lehigh Street, crowds were enjoying themselves over a steak sandwich, with or without cheese, and traditional dishes. It wasn’t quite like the pre-Covid days where waitresses had to walk through crowds near the bar with trays over their heads, and the restaurant had a full menu that offered full meals. If you wanted a cordon bleu, you could go elsewhere. “The Rail”, as it was commonly known, offered good comfort food at a reasonable price, friendly staff and a place to call home.
A 1981 Brass Rail TV advert
It opened 91 years ago when Prohibition was still the law of the land and three years later moviegoers turned up the Rialto to see Gable and Colbert in “It Happened One Night” and if Gable really didn’t wear an undershirt (he didn’t, and underwear sales plummeted nationwide). The Sorrentino family members, who have run it ever since, decided it was time to put the Brass Rail to bed. June 4 was chosen as the date. Judging by a recent visit, Brass Rail t-shirts were going fast.
Allentown’s Italian community was small but mighty in the 1930s, and young Philip Sorrentino was among the earliest entrepreneurs. In the later part of the 19th century, Italian immigrants, as was the case in many parts of the country, were not particularly welcome in the Lehigh Valley. Newspapers printed common ethnic slurs in their headlines, and when it was reported in the Daily Chronicle that it had found an Italian immigrant who spoke German from Pennsylvania, it was a front-page story.
According to his 1997 obituary, Philip Sorrentino was born in Allentown in 1917. His stepdaughter Penny Sorrentino, however, told the Morning Call in 2001 that he was born in Italy and came to America with his parents, Michael and Maria Sorrentino, in 1917. “He worked in a factory for a few years before starting his own business,” said Penny Sorrentino. Perhaps with the onset of the Great Depression the factory closed and this led Sorrentino to open his restaurant, known as Phil’s Lunch. He offered basic food, burgers and hot dogs. Supposedly, it was shortly after that around 1935 that spaghetti arrived. The largely conservative German crowds of Pennsylvania would have viewed this exotic foreign dish with caution, but embraced it enthusiastically after a while.
The Brass Rail got its name in 1937. Supposedly, a friend told Phil Sorrentino he needed something with more class and suggested the Brass Rail as a new name.
The origin of the signature steak sandwich is the story of a thousand fathers, and maybe a few mothers too. The Australians of the metropolis of Brotherly Love to the south claimed to be the initiators. A man named Rudy Pretletz was credited in the Morning Call with first introducing it to Rudy’s Hotel in Bethlehem in the 1930s. It has been claimed that Tom Lamonica of Phillipsburg suggested the idea. The newspaper says that it was in 1939 that the Philip Sorrentino brought the steak sandwich to the Brass Rail.
A 1981 Brass Rail Restaurant TV advertisement
Either way, the Brass Rail was the place that made the steak sandwich its informal signature meal. In 1946, the restaurant was selling an average of 500 steak sandwiches a day. A publication called Lehigh Valley News noted that “the rail” had a specially designed roll cutter that “allowed slicing rolls as fast as they can be filled on a machine”. He went on to note that 90 pounds of onions per day were used on average and the sauce was prepared in gallon containers. “A little gravy, a little meat and all the onions you can eat,” was the advertising jingle Penny Sorrentino remembers hearing when she was growing up at the Allentown Fair.
Throughout its time, the Brass Rail has cherished the role of a place where everyone is welcome. “Dad wanted a family place,” Penny Sorrentino noted. “People could go to the Brass Rail in a suit and tie or jeans and still feel comfortable.” In the 1950s, the Brass Rail was an institution at its location at 1137 Hamilton Street. For those who wanted take-out sandwiches, the window at the street entrance was open with cooks inside grilling burgers and steak sandwiches with a line that sometimes stretched around the block . Inside, the decor was attractive but not overly fancy. For those who lived nearby, a brief stroll for a plate of spaghetti on a cold, damp night was a great refuge.
In 1961, the members of the Sorrentino family who now ran the restaurant with their father saw the growth of suburban Allentown and decided to expand. They bought the Three Roses restaurant on Lehigh Street and opened another Brass Rail. No effort was made to tamper with the menu. According to Penny Sorrentino, it was here in 1963 that 15-year-old Kenneth Link of Emmaus ate 7 steak sandwiches in a row. It is a record which, it is said, still stands today.
Eventually, the Brass Rail installed some footage from the past of the 1930s and 1940s. True to Phil Sorrentino’s wish, it showed people in dresses, jackets and ties. A smiling customer in his fedora and overcoat lifts a pitcher of beer. Perhaps it celebrates the end of Prohibition.
In March, Mark Sorrentino, who runs the Brass Rail with his sister, Pam Ray, and who had been in the family business since peeling onions at the Brass Rail’s Allentown Fair outpost, announced the closing of the restaurant. Although he thought they could move to a new location, labor and construction costs don’t allow it at this time. Sorrentino told WFMZ the official closing date is June 4, but he’s leaving his options open. “I decided that I absolutely wanted to participate in the Allentown Fair,” he said.