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The long (line) goodbye for Malio's

Xcio Johnson and Lorie Ferreira arrived in South Tampa about 12:45 p.m. Saturday to grab one last lunch at Malio's Steak House before it closed for good.

When they learned the storied restaurant didn't open until 5 p.m., they decided to wait.

"It's an icon," Ferreira said, four hours later and still waiting. "Business deals have been closed here. We had a big office party congratulating us here. . . . We want to pay our respects."

So, too, did hundreds of others, as evidenced by the fully booked dining room, the nonstop calls unsuccessfully seeking an open table and the line of dozens without reservations who stood behind Johnson and Ferreira. Those who showed up when the doors opened already faced a 2 { hour wait.

Many drank wine and watched football in the dimly lit, wood paneled bar area to pass the time. One family played catch in the parking lot. A few left their cell phone numbers for the hosts to call when their name reached the top of the list.

Happy to do it, host Grace Osborne said. "That way, we don't have to scream so loud."

On the other side of Malio's, folks with reservations came at a more relaxed pace. Owners Malio and Shirley Iavarone greeted nearly everyone with warm welcomes, hugs and back pats. The scent of oregano and sizzling steaks permeated the air, teasing arrivals as they slipped into cozy booths.

Waiters weaved their way effortlessly through the throng of closing day diners and visitors, delivering steaks, seafood and spaghetti to those lucky enough to gain a seat.

"It's incredible," Shirley Iavarone said. "It's really an honor for us that people think that much of us. We just wish we could take care of everybody."

Since it opened in 1967, Malio's has become an institution among Tampa restaurants. It has hosted movie stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds, sports figures such as Muhammad Ali and Pete Sampras. New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani has dined there, as has Gen. Tommy Franks.

Ann Lustan, the restaurant's receptionist of 19 years, remembered one night when Yankee Derek Jeter came with pop star Mariah Carey, who jumped on stage and sang.

Saturday, Tampa Bay Lightning founder Phil Esposito showed up early for dinner and drinks. Buccaneers executive Doug Williams and defensive end Simeon Rice, and Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella were on the guest list. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had a nightly standing reservation for his own booth, was the only customer to get take-out on this crazy-busy night. He also ordered 20 quarts of Malio's special sauce.

"His wife eats only my sauce," Malio Iavarone said.

While the star power brought the restaurant attention, Malio and his family kept the more regular clientele coming back with their charm.

"He talked to everybody all the time," said Maria Haber of Palm Harbor. "He makes you feel welcome."

Her husband, Dave, said he had been coming to Malio's for 35 years.

"We're sad. We don't know where to go," he said. "I guess Iavarone's, his brother's place. We're going to give that a try."

Malio Iavarone, who expected to serve about 800 to 1,000 customers on the final night, said he just aimed to treat people right. He praised his family and staff for their dedication and hard work, and promised they would not be gone from the restaurant scene long.

"I'll be somewhere in a year," he said. "A nice little steak house."

Customer favorites such as grouper Malio, shrimp Theresa and prime rib are likely candidates to remain on the menu.

Not that Malio's will have many of those left. Patrons began snitching menus as keepsakes the day after the restaurant announced it would sell its South Dale Mabry site to Masonite International Corp., a door manufacturer.

"I guess we're going to have to do shared menus tonight," Shirley Iavarone joked, pointing to a depleted stack.

That was fine by first-timers Monique Cupryn and Chris Evers of St. Petersburg, who figured they'd just find out what Malio and Shirley were getting. That had to be the best, right?

(For the record, Shirley planned to have a shrimp Theresa appetizer and New York strip steak, and Malio was going to order filet mignon.)

Evers and Cupryn tried to get in Friday night but couldn't get a table. They gladly placed their names on the waiting list Saturday for the chance to experience the restaurant they had heard so much about.

"Restaurants like this are classics," Evers said. "It's sad to see them just fade away."

Malio Iavarone kisses friend Carol Valenti Sanchez of Tampa on Saturday, the final night for Malio's Steak House. "I've known Carol since she was a baby," Iavarone said.

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