Feeling saucy: The history of Mario Lelli’s Zip Sauce

Source: The Original Zip Sauce

By Lisa Green

June 8, 2022

As Michiganders, we put onions on hot dogs, olives on hamburgers, and drink Vernors when we’re sick. But have you ever wondered why? In our Michigan Moments: Food series, we’re checking out the history behind iconic Michigan foods and beverages. 

MICHIGAN—Though it may come as a surprise to you, food from the Midwest might be considered unusual by our coastal neighbors. Midwestern cooking often combines culinary traditions from our families’ immigrant backgrounds, locally grown and produced ingredients, and the foods of Indigenous tribes. And in Michigan especially, our home cookin’ includes provisions that were concocted, bottled, and packaged by mitten-state entrepreneurs. If you’re curious about the history of some of your favorite foods and beverages, read on to discover how Michigan history creates Michigan culture.

Zip Sauce

Michigan has a total of about one million cattle and plenty of fertile acreage to feed them, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that we love our steaks. And of course, we have to have the perfect steak sauce to go with it. That’s why we have Zip Sauce, which people love as both a glaze and a dipping sauce. It can be found accenting steaks and other dishes at restaurants across Michigan–and it began with Italian immigrant Mario Lelli.

Soon after arriving in Detroit in 1939, Mario and his cousin, Nerrio Lelli, opened Lelli’s Inn on Woodward. To compete with other Italian restaurants in the area, Mario knew that Lelli’s needed something special. He combined a mix of butter, beef base, and Worcestershire sauce with a chef’s choice of spices to invent Zip Sauce, and it worked. Soon enough, other Detroit area restaurants were producing their own copycat recipes.

In 1948, Mario sold Lelli’s to Nerrio and opened his own place: Mario’s Restaurant, on Second Avenue. The restaurant was legendary in the region, hosting parties for celebs like Lee Iacocca when he was named president of Ford Motor Co. in 1970.

His special sauce took on its own legendary status. Today, Zip Sauce is available in over 4,500 retail stores, sold as “The Original Zip Sauce. And if you’re interested in making Zip Sauce the old fashioned way, Detroit restaurant Andiamo’s has made their official recipe for Zip Sauce available online. Mario would be proud.




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