Eats Beat

Jason’s Deli founder Joe Tortorice, dead at 70, grew Beaumont chain into Texas favorite


You might not have known Joe Tortorice’s name, but you know his gumbo.

The founder of Texas’ iconic Jason’s Deli restaurants died Saturday in Beaumont, ending a 43-year career in a family restaurant that grew up along with Texas but also is known for Cajun flavor.

The Italian-style sandwiches and Cajun muffuletta draw on the family’s lineage. Tortorice’s, father, Joe Sr., came from Gibellina in central Sicily to Beaumont and opened markets and restaurants, incuding J’s BBQ and Washateria, according to company history,

When Joe Jr. left Houston’s legendary Alfred’s to open his own restaurant in 1976, he named it for his son, Jay — Jason’s.

In a 2017 interview in the Wichita Eagle about his servant-leadership style and prison ministry, Tortorice said his favorite menu item is the muffuletta.

Jason’s Deli original menu from 1976. Jason’s Deli Courtesy

Beaumont TV station KBMT, an affiiate of Star-Telegram news partner WFAA/Channel 8, said Tortorice still came to the company’s Gateway Shopping Center store in Beaumont almost every day.

A Texas A&M graduate active in the Ross Volunteers and Corps of Cadets, Tororice led a prison ministry through the Beaumont diocese of the Roman Catholic church, according to KBMT.

The company’s first expansion was from Beaumont to Tyler. Now, it has almost 300 locations in 28 states.

In a Business Insider poll of Texas’ top restaurants earlier this year, Jason’s ranked ahead of Whataburger.

Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 15 Texas Legislature sessions. Since 1985, he has also written more than 2,000 “Eats Beat” columns about Texas dining, restaurants and food.