But the Bitars say their search for a better life was missing one thing: good bread.
What started with a few pitas in the oven became a family restaurant enterprise and award-winning specialty food store that celebrates and savors Middle Eastern cuisine.
Shopping at Bitar's Eastern Mediterranean Market and Grill at 10th and Federal feels like a trip to the corner store in Lebanon. You'll find stuffed grape leaves, tabouli salad, tahini, rose water, pomegranate molasses, dried mint, homemade hummus, various olives and feta cheeses, and more.
Amin Bitar and his family immigrated from a small town north of Beirut in the early 1970s.
Missing their thin homemade pita bread, grandma Badoura used the ovens at St. Maron's Church up the street to bake her own.
"Word got out that the Bitars were baking bread and the orders would start coming in," says Amin. "In Lebanon, you don't use utensils, you use pita bread the way you would use a fork and knife."
Their homemade falafel, char-grilled and seared, and their chicken kabob sandwiches are also a staple.
Their go-to spice? Lemony, tangy sumac.
"I'll never forget the first time someone read it on the menu they were like, 'Sumac? Isn't that the poisonous stuff that grows on the New Jersey Turnpike?'," Amin says. He assured them it is NOT!
And because Bitar's is just around the corner from the city's cheesteak Mecca, Amin bites back with a Mediterranean answer to the South Philly staple: gyro meat, sauteed vegetables, potatoes and harissa mayonnaise.
947 Federal Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147
(Corner of 10th & Federal Street in South Philly)
Phone: 215 - 755-1121