Lile’s Sandwich Shop closes after nearly 60 years as a Dearborn icon

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Mayor Abdullah Hammoud presenting Harry Lile with a framed award.

When Harry Lile, owner of Lile’s Sandwich Shop in Dearborn, closes the doors for the final time of the second-generation family business on Friday, June 30, it will be bittersweet. But there will be no tears.

“I plan on making it as average and normal a day as any other day,” said Lile, of Allen Park. “Many friends are planning to come up. We’ll celebrate the end with pizza and beer once the workday ends.”

The last thing he’ll carry out is a statue of Santa Claus, which he brought two years ago at a yard sale. Santa has stood vigil, watching over customers throughout the year, not just Christmas. Lile never bothered taking Santa down when the holidays were over.

“I said I’d take him down now, when I retire,” he said.

Lile said it’s the right time to close the shop. The pandemic hurt business and many regular customers from area businesses – including most prominently Ford Motor Co. and AAA Michigan – are now working from home, which translates into fewer customers.

“I could stay open for another several years, but it's harder now. I’m also getting up there in age. And the demographics of Dearborn have changed since we opened our doors way back when,” said Lile. “It’s just time. You know when it’s time. Your gut tells you. Your intuition tells you. Your body tells you. We’re closing on our own terms, no regrets.”

A Dearborn institution since 1965

Lile’s was founded by Lile’s father, the late Jim Lile, in 1961 with a Detroit location, which was sold in 1975. The Dearborn location opened in 1965 at 13800 Michigan Avenue. His mother, Ann, worked in both locations until retiring in 1995.

“My mom’s now 91,” said Lile. “She agreed with me that it’s time and gave me her blessing.”

Lile has been working at the shop since he was a child before becoming the owner in 1991.

“I bought it from my dad for $1 back in 1991,” he said, then added with a laugh: “I never gave him the money!”

An only child, Lile graduated from Melvindale High School. He began his education at HFC (then Henry Ford Community College), taking general education classes from 1980-82, before transferring to Western Michigan University and earning his bachelor’s degree in political science. He later earned a master’s degree in history from Eastern Michigan University.

“I wouldn’t have gone to WMU if it weren't for HFC. It gave me the opportunity to build up my GPA, which wasn’t the greatest in high school, and acclimated me to college. I did well at the College. It laid the foundation for me. I had excellent teachers there,” he recalled.

Lile had “grandiose plans” to become an agent for the FBI or the CIA. At a crossroads in his life, his dad told him it was time to decide on a career path.

“After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to go into the family business,” said Lile. “I didn’t want to see it end; that would be a shame. So I thought I’d stick it out, even though I didn’t want to at first. And it wasn’t always easy. But I have no regrets.”

Four menu items: making it simple and making it good

What makes Lile’s unique is it only serves four items on its menu (along with chips and beverages):

  • Ham sandwich
  • Corned beef sandwich
  • Bean soup
  • Split pea soup

“My dad liked things simple. His philosophy was, ‘We may have a limited menu, and let’s make it good,’” recalled Lile.

The most popular item is the ham sandwich. Hand-carved ham is piled high on a fresh roll (with the option of mustard and pickles), with an additional slice of carved ham topping it off.

“It balances out the sandwich. That’s a little gimmick my dad started,” said Lile. “Consider it the appetizer.”

Mark DeBlois, of Dearborn, has eaten at Lile’s for nearly 40 years.

“The sandwiches here are always good because you always know what you’ll get,” said DeBlois. “I like to bring people here who’ve never been here before, especially when I can get them to pay,” he added with a laugh.

Business has quadrupled since mid-May announcement

In mid-May, Lile posted on Facebook: "Dear Customers. As of July 1, Lile’s will be permanently closed. We thank you for your many years of loyalty and support! Thank you and God bless." That same message is on a sign at the restaurant.

Since Lile announced the restaurant was closing, business has quadrupled. Every day, customers from all over Michigan and beyond – including Ohio and Indiana – have come to Lile’s to get that last sandwich and say goodbye. Lines have been so long that they’ve gone out the door and snaked around the corner.

“People have been very patient and respectful about waiting so long in line,” said Lile. “I appreciate that.”

He admitted that he was not expecting this type of outpouring from the community and customers, old and new, regular and occasional.

“I am very grateful. It’s a great feeling of warmth and gratitude,” said Lile. “People have come to me to thank me when I should be thanking them – and I do, believe me – for their business and their patronage. That is worth more than money. It’s very heartwarming.”

“Charm and personality”

Once finished with their meals, numerous customers have posed for selfies in front of the restaurant. This included DeBlois and his wife, Dawn.

“This old neighborhood restaurant has its own charm and personality,” said Dawn.

Mayor Abdullah Hammoud recently presented Lile with a citation, thanking him for his service to Dearborn for all these years.

“That was very kind of him,” said Lile. “I was really touched.”

All walks of life, including Red Wings, Lions, Tigers, and mayors

What Lile will miss the most are the customers.

“My customers have come from all walks of life. I’ve had people coming since the 1960s. I’ve had a man bring in his great-grandson. That’s four generations right there,” said Lile. “I’ve had billionaires eat at the counter alongside blue-collar workers. I’ve served doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, businessmen, auto workers. I’ve served every race, creed, color. It’s a microcosm of America, which is unbelievable.”

Ted Kowalski, of Dearborn Heights, has been a regular at Lile’s since the 1960s. He comes weekly and always orders the ham sandwich and the bean soup.

“My dad introduced me to this place when Harry’s dad was the owner. It has an upbeat atmosphere. I’ve never seen anybody walk out of here not happy. I’ll miss it,” said Kowalski.

He plans to be at Lile’s on June 30.

“I’ll take an extra sandwich home with me and bronze it for posterity,” joked Kowalski.

Some of Lile’s most famous customers include former Compuware CEO Peter Karmanos; members of the Detroit Tigers; Detroit Red Wings; the Detroit Lions; the late Coleman A. Young; who was the mayor of Detroit from 1974 to 1994; and the late Ford president and CEO Henry Ford II. The late Mayor Michael A. Guido and the late Representative John Dingell were also regulars.

“(Guido) would walk over since City Hall used to be across the street,” said Lile. “He would always mingle with the customers because he was such a people person. He was a great mayor and a great man.”

Al Roker gives Lile’s national exposure on Today

Perhaps his most famous customer was meteorologist and TV personality Al Roker of The Today Show. Roker came in to Lile’s in 2007 while in Detroit on business with an entourage of 10.

“Al Roker came in unexpectedly. His people called me to let me know he’d be there in 10 minutes,” recalled Lile. “A month later, he and his co-anchors were talking about sandwiches. He said, ‘The best ham sandwich I ever had was at Lile’s in Dearborn, MI.’ Within 10 minutes, the phone was ringing off the hook!”

In 2008, Roker was broadcasting live from Campus Martius Park in Detroit and invited Lile, giving Lile’s national exposure.

“I was on Today for about 1-2 minutes, carving ham and joking with Roker on air. He was a very nice guy, very personable,” said Lile. “It was pretty fun and pretty cool. I got my two minutes of fame.”

Todd Browning introduced HFC presidents to Lile’s

HFC Cisco Networking Academy lead instructor Todd Browning discovered Lile’s when now-retired HFC electronics instructor Dennis Quatrine first took him there for lunch after becoming a faculty member at the College in 1998. Browning became a regular.

“I fell in love with the ham sandwich and the employees,” said Browning. “It was just a great place where you felt like family. That first visit for me was so memorable, I made it a point to treat every new president of the College – Dr. Gail Mee, Dr. Stan Jensen, and Russell Kavalhuna – to lunch at Lile’s like Professor Quatrine did for me. Over the years I established a friendship with Harry and although the sandwich shop may be closing, our friendship will continue.”

Added Lile: “Todd brought every HFC president in here when they first started. I enjoyed meeting them.”

Grateful to the Dearborn community and loyal customers for a great run

Lile’s retirement plans include having some time to reassess the next step in his life. He will take the summer off and work on his golf game. In 2024, he’s getting married.

“I will forever be grateful to the Dearborn community,” he said. “The customers have been so loyal and supportive for decades. You can’t ask for much more than that after being in business all these years. Dearborn has provided a very positive business environment. I’m fortunate. It’s been a great run!”

VIDEO: A 2019 Channel 7 report about Lile's Sandwich Shop