Big Personality at Big Joe's
"Big" Joe LaCreta may be the owner of an unassuming sandwich shop, but his history packs quite a punch.
Behind the counter at Big Joe's Sandwich Shop, the unassuming sub and pizza restaurant nestled beside Wilmington's commuter rail depot, stands one of the town's biggest personalities, "Big" Joe LaCreta. Somewhere around the age of 90—only he knows for sure—LaCreta could easily pass for a man in his 60s. He credits his good health and longevity to staying busy.
"The last thing I want to do is sit in rocking chair and wait to die," said LaCreta, who has owned the sandwich shop for several decades. He still works out on a daily basis, lifting weights in his home gym. "I tell people, the secret to a long life is eating properly, plenty of exercise, a good night's sleep and lots of sex."
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, LaCreta was also a U.S. Marine who fought in the Korean War, a lifeguard at New Hampshire's Hampton Beach and, perhaps most notably, a professional wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation from the late 50s until the mid-70s—where he was undefeated against such intimidating opponents as Killer Kowalski and George (The Animal) Steele. He has appeared in a number of Hollywood films, including 1975's "Jaws," where he plays one of the bounty hunters hired to ensnare the rogue shark, and "The Last Detail," the 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid, where he portrays a Marine sergeant.
P.H. O'Brien, a North Reading cinematographer who met LaCreta through his work in the film industry, has had both a personal and professional relationship with the actor and former wrestler for the past 15 years. "At one time I think he had 16 sandwich shops," O'Brien said, "but he reduced them down to one to concentrate on acting. He's been in hundreds of commercials. Being a former wrestler, he still gets casting calls for "tough guy" and "Mafioso" roles, even at his age."
Visitors to Big Joe's Sandwich Shop will find the walls papered with LaCreta's old wrestling posters, and if they're lucky, get a glimpse at one of the scrapbooks he keeps behind the counter. Inside of each are over 40 years worth of magazine ads in which he has appeared, including many representing major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company and Fruit of the Loom. The books are bursting with newspaper clippings and publicity photos illustrating his long career, each one with its own story.
Along with the history lesson, Big Joe's customers will find out why Phantom Gourmet's website named the sandwich shop a "Hidden Jewel." LaCreta uses much of his own home-grown produce at the shop, including the large jars of hot peppers stored at the back, and even makes his own meatballs and sausages—something that has also won him a loyal following of customers.
"It might not be as fancy as some of those other places," said LaCreta, "but everything's the best quality. I'm Italian. It's part of my heritage."
Along with great Italian food, customers can count on a large serving of personality with their meals. LaCreta is well known among regulars for his eyebrow-raising commentary, but anyone who knows him is well aware that it's all meant in good fun.
"You wouldn't believe what I sound like at noontime waiting on customers," LaCreta said, laughing. "You'd think I was a different guy."
When he's not making sandwiches or acting, LaCreta, still an imposing 6' 3", spends his time playing racquetball, golfing and entertaining friends at his 14-room home in Reading. Designed for privacy, the house reportedly has no windows, and was featured in a two-page spread in the Boston Globe's "Home and Garden" section back in 1984.
Those who don't have time to stop in for a bite to eat can catch LaCreta in his newest film, "The Fighter," starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Set to be released in December, the movie tells the life story of Lowell boxer, "Irish" Micky Ward. Filmed on location in Lowell, LaCreta plays a boxing announcer, a role that his friend, P.H. O'Brien, said is perfect for him, "He's got the wrestling background. He's very believable."