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Here's the Beef

After more than a half century, Gus and Andy Lettas are still serving up steaks and shots.

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This just in: Gus & Andy's Restaurant and Steakhouse has not sold. Gus and Andy Lettas are not retired. Not today. Not in a week.

Instead, Gus, at 82, and Andy, at 79, along with their sister, Kathryn, will keep at it, keep serving their famous prime rib and other wonderfully old-school lunches and dinners as the family business approaches its 55th year.

Buzz of the sale, to a Nogales investor, reverberated throughout the food and beverage biz for more than a month. The buyer, who had planned a Dec. 1 takeover, with the Lettas boys hanging through the month, saw his venture slip when the sale of one of his properties faltered.

The end of an era spawned by the golden age of Tucson's Miracle Mile--a place of thick cuts of tender meat, full shots, jazz, mobsters, pols, attorneys, judges, deal makers and refuge seekers--has been postponed.

Thankfully.

Through the hush-hush in the earliest part of the proposed deal, only the sharpest of insiders recognized the tip-off: the sudden disappearance of Louis Armstrong from the lounge. The statuette of the trumpet legend presided from a tall perch in front of plush curtains.

Satchmo repaired to the sanctuary of the Lettas home, where Gus, Andy and Kathryn, each widowed, are once again under one roof.

This may come as a shock for the politically correct, who turn up their noses at red meat, booze and lingerie shows, but Gus & Andy's was heralded by left-leaning rags like The Weekly as far back as 1987. That's when music writer Yvonne Tost Ervin noted the opportunity to "hear virtuoso sax" player Dale Norris and his Dale Norris Quartet.

Music was key at Gus & Andy's, which featured Norris, who played with Stan Kenton in the early '60s and toured with Henry Mancini and the Tommy Dorsey band. The sophisticated staff of The Weekly chose Gus & Andy's Best Jazz Club in the 1988 Best of Tucson, noting that it was "a great club with intimate seating, an attentive crowd and pretty good acoustics."

Manny Treumann's Bourbon Street Jazz Band was a regular act who Gus Lettas was occasionally join with his trumpet.

The late John Denman, the classically trained clarinetist at the UA, loved to cut loose at Gus & Andy's with his Dixieland Express. Denman even reeled in his brother in law, Michael Fan, a classical violinist, for shows at Gus & Andy's.

Denman is memorialized on a wall in the restaurant's Hall of Fame, near other greats ranging from Francis Albert Sinatra to Vern Freidli, the Amphitheater High School football coach who winds down after the game with his wife, friends and assistants at Gus & Andy's.

The children of Greek immigrants, Gus, Andy and Kathryn were born in upstate New York. Their father, Chris, had restaurant in Hornell and added a bar when Prohibition was repealed.

Tuberculosis pushed Chris Lettas to Tucson's dry climate in 1947. Like so many others, Chris Lettas was a medical refugee, a man who reversed the odds and lived a full life.

Chris Lettas bought Charlie Fowler's Place, one of Tucson's first post-Prohibition bars, on Miracle Mile and across Ventura Street from the current location in August 1950. Beer was less than 20 cents--and plentiful. The boys managed the joint.

Gus & Andy's is one of the oldest continuous sponsors of a women's bowling league team in the country and last year received a 50-year glass trophy. The boys, avid golfers who used to have a weekly game with Tucson's famous Swindle Brothers, the late George and Mike Borozan, also raised and contributed tens of thousands of dollars to charity via golf events.

At the bar and later in the restaurant, stars mingled with the regulars. Clark Gable stopped in.

"He was in fatigues," Andy Lettas says. "He stopped in for a beer or two."

"He was all gentleman," adds Gus.

There were other gentleman. Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno and his crew frequented the new Gus & Andy's, which opened in 1959, spending well but attracting the attention of business-killers--the Tucson police.

"I had these cops in here just watching Bill and his guys," Gus says. "They would just stand here and try to listen when they used the pay phone."

Gus called the police chief and got no relief. He went upstairs to the mayor, then Democrat Jim Corbett, who arranged a meeting with police chief Bernard L. Garmire. The chief refused to relent.

"The cops were killing the business," Gus remembers. "And they wouldn't leave. So I went to Bill. I told him they were fine; we enjoyed them and that they spent good money, but that the cops wouldn't leave. And Bill says, 'Don't worry about it, Gus. We'll go up to the Highway House and ruin their business.'"

Gus & Andy's is where the former meat salesman Bob McMahon did business and took counsel from the wise Joel Valdez, then-city manager and now senior vice president at the UA, to build his City Meat company, and later, the Metro Restaurants empire. The former Danita Cronin, now Mrs. McMahon, was the bar manager at Gus & Andy's.

"This is where J.V. (Valdez) asked me," McMahon remembers, "if I wanted to be a quitter."

The Lettas trio is not quitting. Not now.

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