The late restaurateur Leonard Monti Sr. once told a newspaper interviewer he wanted to be a “top-notch boxer,” but he broke his hand, putting an end to that ambition. The article’s headline borrowed from the famous film line of Marlon Brando: “I coulda been a contendah.”
Instead, Leonard became Tempe’s best-known restaurant operator where just saying “Monti’s” was enough to get folks to La Casa Vieja at the foot of the bridge over the Salt River. The place was iconic for its labyrinth of some 14 connected rooms, the western art throughout, the sizzling sirloin steaks, and Rosemary Roman bread.
Leonard was born to Italian parents on February 28, 1912, in Hibbing, Minnesota, just two weeks after Arizona was admitted as the 48th state. He studied for one year at Hibbing College. He had four brothers and three sisters.
Leonard would serve five years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was assigned to an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. After his discharge, he was a railway agent and telegrapher. In 1946, he moved to Arizona and settled in Chandler where he operated Monti’s Grill in the dining areas of Western Tavern, 1946-56.
With that experience, he moved to Tempe in 1954 and bought La Casa Vieja, the “Old House,” with all its city history. It had been operated as a restaurant from 1947 to 1954 by Fred and Ruth Brechan, who were from Alaska, and established the “Alaskan Room” in the restaurant. Those tenants refused to transfer the liquor license and balked at leaving after Leonard took over ownership. The dispute was finally resolved, but that long-delayed Leonard getting his restaurant into operation.
The reopening came in April 1956. Of course, he was operating in the historic adobe building erected in 1871 by Tempe’s founder, Charles Trumbull Hayden, the birthplace (1877) of Hayden’s son, Carl Hayden, who would become a soldier, a territorial sheriff, two-term Tempe Town Council member, U.S Representative (1912-27) and enduring U.S. Senator (1927-1969).
In 1970, Leonard Monti ran as a Republican for the Arizona House of Representatives for what was District 8-D but lost the election.
“I got into the restaurant business through my mother-in-law,” Leonard would say. “She and her husband had a restaurant in Phoenix that I learned from them after I got out of the service in World War II.”
For many years, Leonard would jog up A Mountain, or Hayden Butte, to keep in shape. As he got older, he was joined by friends in regular walks up the butte looming high just east of Monti’s. His walking pals were Hayden C. Hayden, Welden Shofstall, and others. The steep climb went from 1,180 feet in elevation to 1,495 feet in a third of a mile. From the south face, they would behold the ever-developing City of Tempe – so changed from when Charles or Carl Hayden looked out from there long before. The mountain had as many as 500 petrographs at the hands of native people.
In 1994, the City of Tempe dedicated that 1.2-mile Hayden Butte walkway and named it The Leonard Monti Trail.
In 1984, the Tempe Community Council established the Don Carlos Humanitarian Award to be presented annually to a Tempe individual or couple for sustained service of caring in the community. Recipients “exemplify true humanitarianism and have made Tempe a better place for everyone,” in the spirit of the award’s namesake, city founder Charles Trumbull Hayden.
Since then, the honor has been regarded as the most prestigious award given annually in Tempe. In 1985, Leonard became just the second recipient of the honor. Once when a reporter asked him, “What was the proudest moment in your career?,” Leonard responded, “Winning the Don Carlos Award.”
He made a number of trips to Italy and to his parents’ origins. He lauded his mother’s sense of humor, knowledge of history, and courage. “She would tell stories about Italy,” he said. “She taught me a lot about history before I had ever been there. Now I have been there many times.”
Leonard would describe himself as a good listener, but not especially talkative. “I will talk if I have something interesting to say, but if I have nothing to say, I won’t,” he told a reporter. He lamented that he had not graduated from a university.
He and his first wife Stella had eight children before they divorced in 1961. Leonard married Shirley, and they had one son, Michael, while she had three other children of her own. Leonard also fathered another son, Andrew.
Leonard Monti Jr. established his own steakhouse in 1971 on 19th Avenue near Cactus Road in northwest Phoenix – Lenny Monti’s Restaurant.
In 1993, with Leonard now in his 80’s, his son Michael, an attorney, took over running the restaurant. Leonard Monti Sr. died Oct. 7, 1997, at the age of 85. That year, Michael bought the restaurant from his father’s trust. He ran it in partnership with Eddie Goitia.
The restaurant closed its doors permanently on Nov. 17, 2014. Rising food costs, the stiff competition of chain restaurants, and the emergence of commercial bids for redeveloping the prime spot at Mill Avenue and Rio Salado Parkway were forces for the closure.
It has been touted as Tempe’s oldest eatery and Arizona’s longest continuously occupied building in the Valley and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In the past few years, the purchaser of the property razed part of the rambling building not considered historic and restored the adobe section, in cooperation with the Tempe Historic Preservation Office. The space is now leased to Downtown Tempe Authority and the building is now called Hayden House.
An extensive collection of the artifacts of Leonard’s life and the history of the restaurant are now in the archives of the Tempe History Museum.
– Lawn Griffiths