Italian Foods Remain on Top

Carol M. Bareuther

Take deli shoppers on a taste tour of Italy to sell more.

When a love of pizza and pasta entices shoppers to travel to Eataly, a New York-headquartered chain of Italian marketplaces, there’s a good bet they leave with iconic ingredients like Prosciutto di Parma, Grana Padano and much more.

That’s because, in addition to a feast-worthy selection of Italian favorites presented in Instagrammable displays, Eataly takes a bite out of the competition when it comes to education. For example, in New York’s Flatiron location, signs atop five-deck refrigerated cases displaying pre-sliced salumi describe the characteristics of products on the shelves. Ditto in the behind-the-glass deli display, where cheeses are well-labeled, the walls on either side feature signs describing Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano. The taste-tempting, register-ringing educational merchandising theme repeats throughout the store. Italian foods at Eataly are its signature, and this makes the retailer a great example of some of the ways every deli can profit from Americans’ love of Italian foods.

Italian is the number one cuisine in the world based on the year-end rankings by TasteAtlas, a food online travel guide based in Zagreb, Croatia. In January, the guide published its TasteAtlas Bucket List of 40 foods and beverage products not to miss this year. Italian cheeses and meats like Parmigiano Reggiano, Gorgonzola, Burrata di Andria and Grana Padano as well as Prosciutto Toscano, Prosciutto di Parma and Calabrian nduja are listed in the top five of the world’s best rankings in the Best Cheeses, Best Jamons and Best Salamis categories. Closer to home, U.S. residents rated Italian food with a popularity score of 88% in a 2019 study by UK-headquartered online research and analytics group, YouGov, beaten only by American cuisine.

“The American consumer is becoming more aware of the multiple values represented by authentic Italian food: nutritional, healthy, tasty, natural and verified origin, to name just a few. The trend is driven by the Americans’ desire to live a healthy life and enjoy good food, unprocessed or minimally processed, without preservatives,” says Mirella Menglide, senior market analyst for the New York-based office of the Italian Trade Agency.


Italian cheeses and meats are staple products in U.S. delis. In 2022, Italy was the top foreign cheese exporter to the U.S., representing 28.4% of the market share and $447.2 million, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data. For meats, Italy ranked as the number three exporter, with a 13.2% market share in 2022 totaling $238 million. In addition to imports, there are many U.S.-based makers of high-quality traditional-style Italian meats and cheeses, providing deli operators with a good supply and selection.

“Traditional prosciutto is always a bestseller,” says Deanna Depke, marketing manager for Volpi Foods, in St. Louis. “With inflation still top of mind, consumers are gravitating more towards salami classics like Genoa, pepperoni and sopressata as well as variety packs that provide convenience to their shopping trip.”

Steady consumer interest in salami as well as snacking has created a foundation for innovation this year. For example, Volpi will launch a new product line of Salami Stix designed as an on-the-go entry-level charcuterie snack. The Stix are crafted from Raised Responsibly meat, the producer’s animal welfare program.

In June, Fiorucci Foods, based in Colonial Heights, VA, and part of the Sigma Foods brands portfolio, will introduce its new Fiorucci-brand 3-ounce specialty salumi line, according to Shawn Munck, director of marketing for European brands and foodservice USA at Sigma, regionally headquartered in Phoenix. “This includes Italian heritage flavors such as Calabrese inspired by the Calabria region and Finocchiona with Tuscany region inspired ingredients along with first-to-market mainstream cuisine favorites like its new Charcuterie Salami and Pizza Flavored Salami flavors.”

Also new is Fiorucci’s 6-ounce Sandwich Variety Pack, which features an assortment of sliced pepperoni, Geno, and hard salami, and a 6-ounce Charcuterie Variety Pack, featuring sliced prosciutto, sopressata and Italian dry salami and ideal for building grazing boards.

Parmigiano Reggiano is always a staple at retail as ‘the king of cheeses’, adds Katie Baldwin, senior brand manager for the Atalanta Corp., in Elizabeth, NJ. “We’re very excited to see consumers learning more about Piave, an aged PDO cheese from a single dairy in the Dolomite area of the Italian Alps. It’s sweeter and a bit nutty and has become a core item in our IL Villaggio portfolio for its crowd-pleasing flavor and incredible story.”

Fontal and Ciliegine are amongst the top 25% fastest-growing cheeses in the Italian specialty category at retail, Baldwin adds, citing IRI Total MULO 52-week data ending April 7, 2023, by Circana (formerly IRI and NPD). “This is exciting to see, as they’re also part of our IL Villaggio product line.”

New flavored Italian hard cheeses are something the Sartori Food Corp., in Plymouth, WI, continues to bring to market.

“We launched a Garlic & Herb BellaVitano last year, and it has quickly become one of the fastest-moving items in our portfolio. Later this summer, we will be launching our newest BellaVitano flavor Tomato Basil, about which we are excited. To continue to bring great-tasting flavors to market that consumers love, we conduct several custom research studies to understand what the most desirable flavors for our cheese types are,” explains T.W. Bacon, director of brand marketing.

Convenience is another area that is important for consumers. This translates into pre-cut grab-and-go products that eliminate wait time in the service deli and pre-prep like grated cheeses.

A good example of the first is Ambrosi Food USA Corp.’s Millennials line of pre-cut, fixed-weight, wrapped and labeled cheeses.

“We launched the line five years ago with the cheeseboard as a central theme. The color coding on the label introduces consumers to try different cheeses, plus packages have a description and tasting notes to help shoppers find the perfect cheeses for their platter,” explains Zachary Pass, director of sales for Ambrosi Food USA Corp., in New York.

The line encompasses cheeses like fresh Buffalo mozzarella; hard cheeses such as Grana Padano; blue cheeses like Gorgonzola; semi-hard such as Provolone and Asiago; and washed rind taleggio.

A good example of the latter, or value-added Italian cheeses, comes from Sartori.

“We offer a line of shaved, shredded and grated Parmesan items that allow consumers to enjoy a premium Parmesan cheese without the hassle of grating, shreddin, or shaving it themselves,” says Bacon.

Similarly, Atalanta’s new IL Villaggio Twist & Grate Grana will launch later this summer.

“Grana Padano is a classic Italian cheese and one of Italy’s best-selling cheeses worldwide. IL Villaggio’s Twist & Grate Grana Padano is perfect for busy families. With a grater built right into the packaging, it’s ideal for adding a bit of flavor on top of pasta, salad or while you’re cooking without all the mess and hassle,” says Baldwin.


1. CREATE DESTINATION DISPLAYS. At Eataly stores, Italian cheeses are displayed front and center in an abundant, behind-the-glass location.

“Anchor your set with at least eight core items that satisfy everyday shopper needs and bring in LTO (limited-time-offer) items to keep shoppers engaged,” recommends Volpi Foods’ Depke.

Many retailers set their cheese cases by region, adds Ambrosi’s Pass. “American cheese is big in the U.S., but there is less regionality, so it’s usually grouped by type like soft ripe, aged cheddar, etc. For Italian cheeses, regionality is big, and this is often how cheeses are grouped as well as by type and by imports and domestically produced,” says Ambrosi’s Pass.

Some hard Italian cheeses have the advantage of ambient or shelf-stable displays, adds Atalanta’s Baldwin. While a tried-and-true technique, we see these displays, when combined with signage that focuses on the farm-to-fork story, as continuing to drive sales.”

2. CROSS MERCHANDISE TO BUILD THEMED DISPLAYS. Consumers are purchasing specialty meat products with other Italian ingredients found throughout store shelves, says Sigma’s Munck. “Based on internal consumer research, we’ve conducted, nine out of 10 consumers link our products to premium Italian cheeses, and roughly two-thirds associate our products with oils, vinegars, pasta sauces and more. There are opportunities for cross selling throughout the deli section that retailers and suppliers can capitalize on with our products to help drive incremental growth.”

More specifically, build a charcuterie destination.

“Charcuterie, grazing and snack boards are more popular than ever. According to Techonmic’s Ignite Menu Data, charcuterie and meat/cheese platters have grown 7.7% over the last year,” Munck adds. “With charcuterie a ‘make-it-your-way’ type of approach, everyday Italian favorites like prosciutto, salami, sausages and sopressata are now being paired with regional Italian salumi options like Calabrese, Finocchiona, Abruzzese, Milano, Coppa, Mortadella, Guanciale and unique salami offerings with different flavor fusions like craft beers, pizza, Arrabbiata, caprese, wine-inspired, desserts and fruit-infused limited time offers.”

A simple way deli operators can offer new charcuterie flavor ideas, introduce customers to new products and build basket size is by providing suggestions for the ‘perfect charcuterie bite’, suggests Evan Inada, charcuterie and partnerships director for Columbus Craft Meats, in Hayward, CA. “This means one meat and one cheese, and then elevating these with acid, sweet and crunch. Retailers can group ingredients for each bite in one place and include recipe cards. Or they can create grab-and-go baskets with ingredients for a couple of different bites. Or they can promote a different bite each week and the ingredients to make it.”

Perfect bite examples featuring Italian-style meats and cheeses, and found on the company’s website as a resource for deli operators, are the G.O.A.T. (sopressata, Gouda, blackberries and candied pecans), the North Beach (Finocchiona salami, fresh burrata, cherry tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and extra virgin olive oil), and the Rustic Beauty (soppressata salami, prosciutto BellaVitano cheese, Castelvetrano olives, strawberries and olive oil and sea salt flatbread).

3. DELICIOUS DEMOS. “Taste sampling is an effective way to introduce shoppers to Italian products they might not be familiar with,” says Columbus Craft Meats’ Inada.

Demos, combined with education, are key for imported Italian cheeses,” adds Atalanta’s Baldwin. “While there are domestic items that compete on the shelf at a much lower cost, there’s a mindset shift once education via signage, digital marketing or a demo comes in. Once consumers know that a smaller quantity of a much higher quality product delivers more flavor to a dish, they instantly understand the price difference.”

Taste sampling is a key part of Italian-themed promotions at retail. For example, each fall, Rouses Markets, a 76-store chain headquartered in Thibodaux, LA, holds its Italian Fall Harvest Month in October, with support from the Italian Trade Agency. In addition to in-store activities, the chain’s ad circular features many deli items. Last year, these included Parmigiano Reggiano, Fontina Fontal and assorted salumi. Customers could even enter an online contest to win a Vespa motorcycle.

4. SEASONAL & SOCIAL MEDIA PROMOTIONS. Seasonal merchandising proves to be what drives convenience and relevancy for shoppers repeatedly. Volpi has successfully leveraged occasion-based merchandising with cross promotions of prosciutto and melon in the summertime and salami and wine in the fall.

“Demand for charcuterie peaks towards events that bring people together. These events or holidays are the key times to engage non-deli shoppers in the category. Integrate charcuterie into your planned events like Father’s Day and Fourth of July celebrations,” recommends Volpi’s Depke.

She adds, “For an everyday boost in sales, place pepperoni, shredded mozzarella and fresh pizza dough together for a convenient meal solution.”

Influencer activity on social media was part of a recent promotion the Atalanta Corp. ran on its IL Villaggio authentic Italian and Italian style cheeses, tells Baldwin. “The promotion combined a TPR (temporary price reduction), in-store signage, recipe ideas and influencer activity. Not only did we see sales grow exponentially, but we also had one of the influencer videos go viral, which is always exciting to see.”

5. INCLUDE PREPARED FOODS. To build a cohesive experience, integrate Italian meats, cheeses and other items like pasta and olive oil into other parts of the store like high-demand prepared foods, suggests Atalanta’s Baldwin. “Leverage the popularity and premium association of Italian foods by crafting new recipes that drive trial of specialty foods carried in your store.”

Ideas include showcasing these ingredients as pizza toppers, hot and cold pasta dishes and sandwiches. The deli is natural to capitalize on the latter. And there is trending energy to do so. Italy’s most famous sandwich shop, All’Antico Vinaio, opened locations in New York in 2019 and more recently in Los Angeles. Among the two bestsellers are La Favolosa, made with Tuscan salami, spicy marinated eggplant and Pecorino and artichoke creams; and La Schiacciata del Boss, which is filled with Tuscan prosciutto, sliced Pecorino, and black-truffle cream. Both are served on a Tuscan flatbread called a schiacciata.

Eataly also employs prepared food promotions to educate and encourage its customers to buy.

“In May, we started a new program called Icons of Eataly. The series started with 12 days of festivities celebrating Italy’s beloved national dish of pasta. These include star chef demos in-store, pasta-making classes and tasting events,” tells Dino Borri, global vice president of partnerships for Eataly North America.

For customers that can’t attend in person, the retailer offered ingredient-bundled kits with printed shopping lists and recipes for home preparation.

Eataly continued its series by featuring a different classic pasta dish each month for six months in its La Pizza & La Pasta restaurant. In June, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe was served tableside in an 80-pound wheel of Pecorino Romano DOP. This is a delicious idea that any deli, whether via its prepared foods case or recipes at the service deli counter, can make it’s own to take advantage of American’s love of Italian foods.


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