Mema's Italian Grinders are unlike any other in Des Moines — and now they have a permanent home. – Des Moines Register

When you eat a sandwich at Mema’s Italian Grinders, it will smack you in all your senses.
The restaurant’s namesake sandwich is a homemade, 7-inch hoagie that’s packed with a half-pound mix of Italian sausage and ground beef, sealed in with smoked provolone. It’s weighty in the hand, and you’re instantly greeted with the smell of a secret spice blend and melted cheese.
It fills its carry-out container to the brim. And from the first bite, you’ll likely realize that this is a different kind of grinder — something Des Moines hasn’t seen since the 1970s.
Mema’s Owner Chad Cline set out to bring back the grinder of his childhood and ended up creating a handful of hefty deli sandwiches with a loyal following. Now, after two years serving out of a custom-built food truck, Mema’s Italian Grinders, 2250 E. First St., has put down roots in Grimes with a unique micro carry-out storefront.
Customers often ask Cline if Mema’s is a chain because the warm, inviting character holding a tray of hoagies in the shop’s logo feels so familiar. Mema’s is not a chain, and the logo is the likeness of Cline’s late grandmother, Helen Cline, who left a legacy in the dining scene in Newton, Iowa.
“She was kind of the matriarch of Newton as far as offering some of the best pizza,” said Cline. “To this day, I have 70-year-old men come up to me and tell me that their first date with their now wife of 40, 50, 60 years was at her pizzeria, and it almost gets me every time.”
From 1959 to 1999, grandma Cline ran the Pizza House, where locals gathered for her homemade pizzas and Italian grinders. She put Cline to work there when he was eight, teaching him to make change and take calls. To Cline, it was a lesson in customer service, and the experience stuck with him even as his career path led him away from the service industry.
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In 2019, with 20 years of IT experience under his belt, Cline decided to grow his passion for cooking with a side hustle: a food truck dedicated to serving old-fashioned, Italian grinders with a combination of Italian sausage and ground beef. Most modern grinders skip the beef, and according to Cline, his is the only one in Des Moines that has reincorporated it. 
For the first year, Mema’s food truck did only weekend events. By 2020, Cline decided to grow a clientele by parking the food truck at Canoyer Garden Center in Grimes and hiring staff to keep the truck open for three weekdays, catering to the surrounding Johnston and Urbandale neighborhoods.
As the pandemic shut down restaurants and kept people from dining out, the food truck became a Grimes staple. At its peak, the truck was serving 700 sandwiches a day.
For 18 months, Cline balanced both his full-time IT job with the food truck. He’d get up at 4 a.m. to load the truck with fresh water and get it stationed at a parking lot for the day’s staff. After work, he’d go back to clean up and tear down.
“That was taxing. There were a lot of late nights, there were a lot of early mornings,” Cline said. “I wouldn’t have been able to build that rapport and clientele with this community had I not.”
Business continued to grow rapidly. Their baker couldn’t produce hoagies fast enough. Cline was buying more Graziano Brothers sausage than Hy-Vee, and he realized that to roll with the punches, he’d need to start thinking of a bigger space. He transitioned out of IT and began working full-time on Mema’s this month.
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Even though he’d had early experiences in his grandmother’s pizzeria, the thought of building an entire sit-down restaurant felt like an unpredictable and challenging route.
Instead, Cline drew up a 85-page business proposal for a 700-square-foot hole-in-the-wall in Grimes, sandwiched between Central Iowa Vapors and an AT&T store.
Only 15 inches wider than the food truck, it more than doubled the length of the truck’s kitchen space.
The kicker? It would be a carry-out only restaurant. Sort of like a food truck.
Bricks adorn one wall, paying homage to the back alley of the Pizza House where he spent countless hours playing with neighborhood children and cousins. It’s also reminiscent of back-alley deli counters in Chicago.
You likely won’t wait more than eight minutes to get your order in the new establishment: The Mema’s staff has their routine down to a science.
But if that’s too long, online ordering is available. There are no tables or chairs inside or out — this is strictly a pick-up counter open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The menu is meaty, and nearly every ingredient is made in-house. The meatballs are hand-rolled; the hoagies are baked fresh; the spice blends are secret.
Ribbons of thinly sliced beef are drenched in a house-made au jus on the Chicago-style Italian Beef (topped with a scoop of giardiniera and a not-so-Chicago amount of cheese). The Pizza Burger, made of hand-grated pork mixed into seasoned ground beef with cheddar cheese and red sauce, resembles neither a pizza nor a burger. Cline likes to think of it as a pizza Maid-Rite.
“I just want people to immediately feel like they’re going to get a superior product,” Cline said.
The sandwiches run $10, and Cline knows that’s steep for a sandwich with no included sides. But for the size and quality of the sandwiches, it’s justifiable. Sides like toasted cheese ravioli, mozzarella sticks and breaded Portobello strips run $8.
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Elle Wignall covers dining for the Register. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @ElleWignallDMR.

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