Certain experiences are closely associated with summer. Chasing fireflies, running through the sprinkler, backyard barbecues, and pick-up baseball games all evoke fond summertime memories. But few things cry summer more than ice cream — and a Spearfish family is capitalizing on that nostalgia with an ice cream shop that has earned them a dedicated following throughout the Black Hills.
Ice cream was a big part of growing up in the Leone household. Rebecca, the third of five siblings, says the family often made ice cream at home, and when they traveled, they would seek it out as a treat. As a result, she says, “It’s kind of always been a weird dream of mine to open an ice cream shop.”
Rebecca was born in the Black Hills, but the family moved around a lot. Her father, Dave, worked for the Rapid City Journal for a time, but transferred frequently to different newspapers; as a result, they called Illinois, Montana, and California home over the years. She ended up going to college at the University of Montana in Missoula, where she discovered Big Dipper Ice Cream, a local shop with a great community vibe that offered her a place to hang out and socialize. Similarly, her sister Hannah — the youngest of the five — became enamored with a shop called Mallard Ice Cream that specialized in funky, unique flavors in Bellingham, Washington while in college.
Rebecca’s parents had planned on returning to the Black Hills when it came time to retire. Mom Jane’s family were fifth-generation South Dakotans with a long history in the state and though Dave was originally from California, he loved the area and longed to come back. Sadly, her dad passed away unexpectedly in 2010; rather than waiting for retirement, Jane decided to move back home immediately. Rebecca and Hannah jumped in to help their mother get settled in Spearfish; Rebecca originally planned to stay for the summer before enrolling in grad school but ended up staying.
“I just kind of fell in love with this community again and decided to put my other plans on hold for a while to see what Spearfish had to offer and whether this was a place I could be myself,” she says. “I’m still here!”
She took a job at Dough Trader Pizza, met a man named John Williams, and proceeded to carve out a life for herself in Spearfish. Rebecca and John were eventually married, and after a couple of years away, Hannah moved back, as well. That was when the idea of running their own business took bloom.
“When we moved back, we missed the ice cream places we had discovered and felt like Spearfish was perfect: a college town with a supportive local community,” Rebecca says. The sisters were impressed by the number of locally-owned restaurants, breweries, and craft businesses opening their doors. After a year, rather than hoping somebody else would open an ice cream shop, they decided to start looking into doing so themselves.
“We knew how to make it at home,” Rebecca explains, so they started researching what types of equipment they would need. John was on board with the idea; the sisters’ food service experience and his background knowledge of business and entrepreneurship made them the perfect team. John found an ice cream shop near St. Louis that was selling all their equipment and within a week had driven down there, rented a U-Haul, and brought it all back. Around the same time, they found a location in Spearfish ideal for their shop, and everything fell into place.
“It felt like a sign from the community and the universe,” Rebecca says.
When it came time to choose a name for the business, there was never any doubt over what that should be. “Leone is my maiden name,” Rebecca explains. “It’s Italian for lion. Our family name has always been a point of pride. It became even more important after my dad passed away.” So important that John even took it as his middle name.
Leones’ Creamery officially opened its doors in November 2014. If you think that’s an unusual month to launch an ice cream business, Rebecca agrees wholeheartedly…but the timing worked out well. Since they were only open three days a week during the winter, the off-season launch gave them a few months to operate without hiring a staff, figure out the equipment, and decide how they wanted to serve their customers. “The community of Spearfish was very patient with us as we figured this out through the winter,” she says. “Going into that first summer, we had a lot more confidence. It ended up being a really good move for us.”
It didn’t take long for Leones’ Creamery to earn a devoted following. Customers were drawn to the shop’s mix of delicious and unique flavors; some of the more unusual creations people responded to well include Blueberry Goat Cheese; London Fog; Peanut Butter Curry; and Stinging Honeycomb — a decadent mix of candied honeycomb with a spicy honey caramel swirl. Leone’s makes it a point to partner with other Spearfish businesses whenever possible; their Pile of Dirt Porter, for instance, is based on Crow Peak’s beer of the same name. It’s boiled down and dark chocolate shavings are added to create a malty, roasty ice cream that appeals to folks of all ages.
Leones’ has eight rotating flavors at all times, and always includes a dairy-free offering that uses a coconut milk base. Popular flavors vary by season; in the springtime, lemon poppyseed and fruit flavors reign supreme, while rhubarb is a hit in the summer. Winter sees customers clamoring for peppermint bark and Nutcracker, and almond ice cream with four different types of caramelized nuts. Year-round favorites include chocolate Oreo and anything with coffee.
One of the unique things about Leones’ Creamery (flavors notwithstanding) is Scoop It Forward, an opportunity for customers to treat others by buying them a scoop of ice cream. Names are written on a chalkboard and customers can claim their free scoop any time. The idea was inspired by a visit to a brewery in Fargo that was doing a “pint it forward” program. Originally, only one-third of the chalkboard was designated for Scoop It Forward, but it proved so popular that it’s taken over the entire board now. This doesn’t surprise Rebecca in the least.
“Ice cream is a good price point,” she says. “Buying someone a $3 single scoop is easy to do but also feels like a gift to someone. We knew Spearfish would really embrace it; it’s a community of people wanting to take care of each other.”
Names are removed after 4-6 weeks, but the Leones’ staff keeps a physical log, so there is no real deadline to claiming a free scoop. People have been known to get pretty creative, as well; they might buy a scoop for a “teacher” or “first responder,” or even “the next person wearing a shirt that’s green.” Sometimes, they’ll contribute $10 toward the next group coming in. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to spread a little happiness.
And let’s face it: ice cream does a pretty good job of putting a smile on peoples’ faces regardless!
words by Mark Petruska
photos by Jesse Brown Nelson