Not even a global pandemic could stop the small but mighty borough of Verona from a growth spurt. Verona stretches along Allegheny River Boulevard and is about 70 businesses strong, with a population of more than 2,700. And this year, the borough will have reached a major milestone: it is celebrating its sesquicentennial—the 150th anniversary of its May 10, 1871 incorporation.
Early in the last century, Verona was a booming railroad town, complete with railroad shops, a foundry and a roundhouse. The railroad industry was a major employer, and this history is honored throughout the borough and preserved by the Verona Historical Society. The name Verona derives from Verner and Iona—two of the four railroad stations on the old Allegheny Valley Railroad that were located within the borough limits.
Besides a rich industrial history, what characterizes many Pittsburgh neighborhoods is the longevity of some of its families, and Verona is no exception. Kevin Ewing’s clan has been established in Verona for more than 150 years: his great-grandfather had a dry goods store in the Masonic building, and his grandfather established Home Loan and Savings Association of Verona.
“It’s a pretty, quaint little town,” said Ewing, who is president of the Verona Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re lucky. We’re very small, and we have access to the Allegheny River for boating and pleasure crafts. The Steel City Rowing Club is domiciled here. And we share a school district with Oakmont.”
Oakmont used to be part of Verona, and though Verona at one time may have been overshadowed by its next-door neighbor, it is coming into its own. In addition to the many small businesses that dot the landscape, some larger businesses, such as Lamagna Cheese Company and American Beverage Corporation (founded as Daily Orange Juice Company), also call Verona home. Ewing’s insurance agency, Kier G. Ewing & Associates, has been in business for 106 years, while E.N. Miller Furniture—now E.N. Miller Antique Mall—opened in 1909.
Verona is a well-established base for Dirty Harry’s Bicycles Inc., a family-style bike shop which has been in business for 40 years. “We have always felt welcome here and everyone is always trying to make Verona a spot more than a dot,” said owner Barry Jeffries, who added that Verona has a great farmers’ market in the summer as well as community movies and car cruises.
Longtime resident Patty Thomas owns Pinks Tiny Paws, a boutique offering doggie daycare and boarding that is geared toward pooches under 20 pounds. Even though COVID took its toll on small businesses, she was able to stay open. Though she resides in Penn Hills, Thomas views Verona as her second home. “I enjoy the small-town vibe and friendly people. Everyone knows you here,” she said, adding that the business owners look out for each other.
Though there are a good number of long-term businesses in Verona, new businesses and restaurants have been opening up regularly over the past several years—and when they do, they are welcomed into the community.
Jennifer and Kevin Walzer and Kelly and Tim Melle recently opened Inner Groove Brewing, a craft beer brewery, in June 2019. “We have up to 12 rotating taps, and we sell cans to go as well. We have rotating food trucks every day, which is a new thing for Verona,” said Jennifer Walzer.
After looking for a site for a year, nothing really stood out to them until they stumbled upon Verona. “It just felt like the right place to be. We liked that it was a little, walkable town. Things were up and coming. We started going to council meetings and meeting people, and everything just clicked. We knew where we wanted to build our home base,” said Walzer.
Another relative newcomer to Verona is Stonewall Cider House and Meadery, which opened in 2019. Like Walzer, co-owner Joshua Niese had a good feeling about Verona. “Years ago, being the real estate agent that I am, I personally had the chance to tour many of the homes and a few commercial and multi-unit buildings. I fell in love with the town. It not only resembles my home town of Bluffton, Ohio, but it felt just as friendly,” he said.
Off the Rails Barbecue and Drafthouse morphed from a food truck business into a brick and mortar restaurant. Despite opening two days before the shutdown last year, the restaurant was able to survive the pandemic by shifting gears to offer online ordering and curbside service. Owner Ken Shields has since built an outdoor patio, which draws customers from many neighborhoods.
“There’s a lot more to Verona than people may realize,” said Shields. “You can get a nice house in Verona for a decent price, and the same with commercial property. I think it will just keep getting better for years and years to come.”
Verona is more than just a great place to eat and shop. Several recreational parks—Cribb’s Field, Riverbank Park, and Railroad Park—are in the heart of Verona and have been the sites for many a ball game or picnic. The riverfront is also home to several marinas and canoe clubs.
To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the Verona Community Group, started by Jessica Varone, who moved to the area four years ago, will be hosting several events. A socially distanced kickoff with speakers, musicians and local historians was held in May. The main celebration is set for the weekend of September 18-19 with activities on both days, including a parade and a Community Day celebration featuring art, vendors, food and a headliner act of acrobatic performers. The next day will be a picnic at Cribb’s Field; a commemorative video will be shared along with the sale of T-shirts and ornaments.
Varone added that a time capsule will be buried at the end of the year during Verona’s annual Light up Night festivities. “This way we can add memorabilia collected throughout the year,” she explained.
And though not officially part of the 150th celebration, Ewing added that the Verona/Oakmont picnic at Kennywood is going into its 109th consecutive year—Kennywood’s longest standing community picnic—which will be held this year on July 14.