East Coast transplants rejoice. Rita's Italian Ice has finally stretched its frosty franchising arms across the country to California, and the seventh West Coast location just happens to be right here in Huntington Beach. We know, you need a minute to digest this information. We'll meet you back here in 60.
Rita's HB unveiled its iconic red and white striped awnings and opened its doors at Huntington Harbour Mall on Wednesday, October 23, with a Philadelphia family at the helm. Staffed with local ladies and gents, the eatery slings its sweet water (or "wudder") ice and creamy frozen custard via topnotch customer service. In fact, the "treat team" service is so good, it includes generous samples of the frozen treats, which are often served by a life-size Italian ice (pictured above).
While Rita's water ice serves as reason enough to stop in for a snack, the Gelati is the supreme sweet we should really be talking about. BJ, owner of Rita's HB, promises that the beloved menu item "is going to change your day." Water ice, which now comes in 65 different flavors, nestles between two liberal dollops of custard, promising a brain freeze that is well worth the pain (if you consume it as fast as we do).
For those unfamiliar with the Pennsylvania-based dessertery and its sugary goodness, its water ice is made onsite with real fruit every 36 hours. At the HB location, the ice is pumped every 30 minutes to retain its icy consistency. Flavors vary depending on the season, and the HB spot promises 10 to 12 options daily. Pumpkin pie fans should stop in for a taste before the icy seasonal delight is replaced by York Peppermint Patty ice this month. We recommend the pumpkin pie water ice à la Gelati with vanilla frozen custard. Other fresh custard flavors include chocolate, vanilla-chocolate twist, light vanilla and rotating specials. Current limited-time custards are coffee, strawberry and orange cream.
Any ice not consumed within the 36-hour period is usually donated to a local joint or group. "We'll take [quarts] to local sports fields and drop them off," says BJ, adding, "We rarely end up throwing anything away."
A 29-year-old businessman working alongside his business-savvy father and his father's business partner, BJ talked in detail about his mission to make the Rita's experience memorable and spread the company's family- and customer-friendly message to the neighborhood. New to the West Coast and unfamiliar with HB, BJ says when he first pulled into Huntington Harbour Mall, he thought, "This is it." Rita's HB's hometown focus is apparent on many levels inside the store, including a framed shot of the HB Pier hanging on one of its walls and a special inside seating area for the kiddos.
Rita's is not your typical franchise, nor are locations hard to come by back east. As BJ explains, "On the East Coast you go to your Rita's because you know the owners. They're in your schools. They're on your sports fields. You do fundraisers with them. That's just what you do. After dinner you go to Rita's."
Aside from the day-changing Gelati, other sweets include frozen custard cakes, sundaes (with unlimited toppings), Mistos, Blendinis, milkshakes and custard cookie sandwiches. For those craving something warm and salty, $2.50 legit Philadelphia soft pretzels from Prospect Pretzels will be served in the coming weeks.
HB reserves bragging rights as one of the first three Orange County cities to house Rita's Italian Ice, but BJ and his crew plan to open locations down the coast in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. A total of 30 Rita's eateries are expected to pop up in OC in the next three years. San Diego will be inundated with Rita's water ice in the next five years, as plans to open 40 stores progress. It's a welcomed invasion, especially for East Coasters missing the icy indulgences.
Keep your eyes peeled for Rita's at local events, too. The HB store's grand opening will take place in the spring, and the first 50 guests will score free water ice for the entire year. Dust off those tents, HB.
Sweet teeth are always sated at Rita's, so go on, West Coast natives. Indulge in the "ice, custard and happiness."
Rita's Italian Ice is located at 16917 Algonquin Street, Unit F, Huntington Beach, CA 92649. Hours are Monday through Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.