Leone’s, The Rig, and the changing nature of Mechanicsville
People & Places

Leone’s, The Rig, and the changing nature of Mechanicsville

The wavering borders of the city’s trendy west-end neighbourhoods often spark petty arguments about where Westboro ends and Hintonburg begins. The fact that the main thoroughfare changes its name not once but twice complicates things further.

However, before it was a hot detail in real estate listings, this neighbourhood was an opportunity for my father, Antonino “Tony” Leone. Forty years ago, as an immigrant from Sicily, he fulfilled his dream of being self-employed by opening Leone’s Service Centre at the corner of Hinchey and Scott.

At that time, the lower half of Wellington West was a dangerous place full of crime, drugs, and prostitutes (we’ve all heard the stories about the Elmdale, the escort door, and the rooms upstairs). The people of Hintonburg lived and worked in the derelict dwellings that are now being flipped into million-dollar domiciles. The Carleton Tavern offered respite and camaraderie at the end of a hard day’s work.

If you’ve travelled along Scott Street, you may recall seeing the orange-and-black sign at the front of the lot. Papa ran the business for 37 years. As a child, I didn’t realize that growing up in a garage was anything other than normal. My cousins and I would play on the hoists (while they were lowered to the ground, of course), pretending they were balance beams. I would give customers the most horrible windshield washes, but I’d still get tips. It’s funny — despite being so comfortable in the shop, I do not know how to check my oil, fill my windshield wiper fluid, or change a tire. Papa had done everything for me.

About 10 years ago, things started to change. Government regulations made it difficult for the mom-and-pop gas stations to remain open. Business slowed, but in a pleasant way. My dad rented out the back garage and ran Leone’s as more of a hobby than a money-making business — he was approaching 70. “What am I going to do if I retire?” he’d say.

Though time marched forward, to Papa, Hintonburg never changed. When I lived on Holland Avenue, he’d caution me against going out at night. He didn’t even like when I went downtown.

You can imagine that when I moved to Australia a couple years later, he was less than impressed. Every time we spoke, he wanted to make sure I was coming home. But I had started working full-time as a fitness instructor. The energy, the sweat, the activity, the music offered an amazing adrenalin rush. How could I move back?

“What if I open a gym in the back garage when the renters move out?” I asked one day over the phone. While he didn’t initially see the value in my opening in the garage, I found out later he had said to a friend, “How about that? My daughter wants to work next to me.”

And then suddenly my dad was sick. At first, we thought I could come home from Australia in another month or so, tie up loose ends, say my goodbyes. But a week later my mom called me. “I think you need to come home.”

Two weeks later, he died. Death is awful, but what was worse was seeing someone I knew as strong in such a frail and delicate position. Before he died, my dad told my mom it would have been nice to get the garage to 40 years. She told him she would make it happen.

It took me two years after his death to see how my dream would fit into our family’s future. In the fall of 2019, when I finished a contract with the government, I put into place a plan for a gym beside Leone’s. Then the pandemic brought the world — and my plans — to a full stop. Almost everything closed. The only thing in my life that stayed open was Leone’s. Now in its 40th year, Leone’s welcomes a new tenant: The Rig, a gym and training centre that will open in May. I’ll work beside my mom, Teresa Leone (often found knitting at the front desk), as she continues to run the business with our long-time mechanic, Agostino.

It wasn’t easy for Papa to follow his dream, and it hasn’t been easy for me. We will open at half capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions, and we don’t know if people will take a chance on a new gym in uncertain times. But that’s part of starting a business and following a dream: risk.