On a River Ridge street, 3 generations of a Sicilian-American family live, cook and give thanks – NOLA.com

Seated in front are Joey LaBella and Judy LaBella, left, and Margy Raye and Bill Raye, right,. Also in the front row, from left, are Sarah Whittle and Nick Tusa, and far right, Robyn Schmitt. Back row are, from left, are Amanda LaBella, JJ LaBella, Lena Rose Tusa with Lewis Tusa and Jenny LaBella Tusa, Jeena LaBella Seals, Earl Seals, Ava Seals, Ethan Seals and neighbor Tim Irwing.
Seated in front are Joey LaBella and Judy LaBella, left, and Margy Raye and Bill Raye, right,. Also in the front row, from left, are Sarah Whittle and Nick Tusa, and far right, Robyn Schmitt. Back row are, from left, are Amanda LaBella, JJ LaBella, Lena Rose Tusa with Lewis Tusa and Jenny LaBella Tusa, Jeena LaBella Seals, Earl Seals, Ava Seals, Ethan Seals and neighbor Tim Irving.
This is one of the three indoor tables where a crowd of family and friends will dine at the home of Judy and Joey LaBella.
Joey LaBella and granddaughter Lena Tusca prepare Sunday lunch,
The women of the family, from left, are Margy Raye; Judy LaBella and her daughter Jenny Tusa;and  Robyn Schmitt, Judy and Margy’s niece. Not pictured is Jeena LaBella Seals, Judy LaBella’s other daughter.  
Rose Hardeman, mother to Judy LaBella and Margy Raye, is no longer alive, but she lives on through her recipes. Robyn Schmitt wears her heirloom ring.
At a previous family gathering, Judy, Joey and Joe LaBella share a laugh. 
Sisters and family matriarchs Margy Raye and Judy LaBella in front of a photo wall full of family history.  
In 2018, family member gather around the banquette.
A kitchen window looks out into the LaBellas’ dining room. Food will be served buffet-style for Thanksgiving.
LaBella’s- Margie and Bill’s house has a pool for the family to enjoy in the right weather and summer gatherings. ORG XMIT: No.LaBella’s.io.112021
LaBella’s- Schmitt ORG XMIT: No.Blanchard.io.112021
LaBella’s- Judy and Joey’s daughter and son-in-law renovated this house which is one house away The LaBella’s. ORG XMIT: No.LaBella’s.io.112021
LaBella’s- Irving ORG XMIT:  
LaBella’s-LaBella ORG XMIT: No.Blanchard.io.112021
Seated in front are Joey LaBella and Judy LaBella, left, and Margy Raye and Bill Raye, right,. Also in the front row, from left, are Sarah Whittle and Nick Tusa, and far right, Robyn Schmitt. Back row are, from left, are Amanda LaBella, JJ LaBella, Lena Rose Tusa with Lewis Tusa and Jenny LaBella Tusa, Jeena LaBella Seals, Earl Seals, Ava Seals, Ethan Seals and neighbor Tim Irwing.
Seated in front are Joey LaBella and Judy LaBella, left, and Margy Raye and Bill Raye, right,. Also in the front row, from left, are Sarah Whittle and Nick Tusa, and far right, Robyn Schmitt. Back row are, from left, are Amanda LaBella, JJ LaBella, Lena Rose Tusa with Lewis Tusa and Jenny LaBella Tusa, Jeena LaBella Seals, Earl Seals, Ava Seals, Ethan Seals and neighbor Tim Irving.
At a previous family gathering, Judy, Joey and Joe LaBella share a laugh. 
In 2018, family member gather around the banquette.
A kitchen window looks out into the LaBellas’ dining room. Food will be served buffet-style for Thanksgiving.
LaBella’s- Margie and Bill’s house has a pool for the family to enjoy in the right weather and summer gatherings. ORG XMIT: No.LaBella’s.io.112021
LaBella’s- Schmitt ORG XMIT: No.Blanchard.io.112021
LaBella’s- Judy and Joey’s daughter and son-in-law renovated this house which is one house away The LaBella’s. ORG XMIT: No.LaBella’s.io.112021
LaBella’s- Irving ORG XMIT:  
LaBella’s-LaBella ORG XMIT: No.Blanchard.io.112021
With 50-plus years in the restaurant and catering businesses and a large family that includes siblings, children and grandchildren, Judy and Joey LaBella are both family- and food-centric, the perfect combination for Thanksgiving.
Each year, about 50 family members and friends gather at their River Ridge home for the holiday, which includes an afternoon sit-down dinner and a revolving door of drop-in visitors.
Here’s how their Thanksgiving story came to be.
Twenty-one years ago, the LaBellas moved from Metairie, where they raised their three children and lived near multiple family members, to their current address, a 1950s ranch house, which they’ve enlarged and renovated.
A year later in 2001, Margy and Bill Raye (Judy LaBella’s sister and brother-in-law), moved next door.
In 2005, Jenny and Lewis Tusa (the LaBellas’ daughter and son-in-law), along with their 4-year old daughter and his 22-year-old son, moved several houses down from the LaBellas.
And in 2009, Robyn Schmitt (Judy LaBella’s and Margy Rayes’ niece) and her husband, Victor, and kids moved next door to the Rayes.
The family members affectionately refer to the block, which holds only six houses in total, as “The Compound.”
“We’re very family-oriented on this block,” said Judy LaBella.
The women of the family, from left, are Margy Raye; Judy LaBella and her daughter Jenny Tusa;and  Robyn Schmitt, Judy and Margy’s niece. Not pictured is Jeena LaBella Seals, Judy LaBella’s other daughter.  
Some “adopted” family members also are part of the Compound network. Jeff Bater and his husband, Tim Irving, both from New York and now retired, moved into the house between the LaBellas and the Rayes eight years ago. They were instantly brought into the fold.
“They had no choice,” said Margy Raye. “They’re part of our family now. It was meant to be.”
“We moved in and they wrapped their arms around us,” said Bater. “We were told we were to come to their house for Thanksgiving, and ever since, every holiday we’re included.”
The former owners of LaBella’s restaurant in Kenner, and later of LaBella’s Catering, Judy and Joey LaBella provide both their home and their cooking skills for the Thanksgiving meal.
Eight-foot banquette tables — set up inside and outside and decorated with linens (this year ivory and gold), candles, seasonal centerpieces, flowers brought by guests, and Judy Labella’s pilgrim figurines — stretch the seating capacity of the couple’s dining room and kitchen.
The LaBellas are technically retired. Their daughter Jenny Tusa now owns both LaBella’s Catering and The Crossing reception venue with two partners (Nancy Gaspard and Leslie Gaspard). But Joey LaBella is the primary chef du jour.
This is one of the three indoor tables where a crowd of family and friends will dine at the home of Judy and Joey LaBella.
In addition to traditional and New Orleans-traditional Thanksgiving fare — turkey, oyster dressing, duck sausage, stuffed mirliton, he usually prepares a meat dish, such as pork loin stuffed with cornbread, pecan and cranberry dressing, and Italian specialties like baked eggplant Parmesan, a pasta-free spin on lasagna.
“My father doesn’t know how to cook small,” said Tusa, the couples’ eldest child and the third generation of the bloodline to own the eponymous family business. In fact, Joey LaBella’s nightly dinners frequently feed neighboring members of the busy family.
There is no shortage of other culinary and entertaining expertise in the rest of the family.
Tusa enjoys putting together the Thanksgiving decor, while middle daughter Jeena LaBella Seals and son Joseph “Jeaux” LaBella (formerly executive chef on The Natchez and now at The Crossing) enjoy going off the list of holiday mainstays.
In past years, Jeena Seals’ contributions have included tamale balls; Jeaux LaBella’s have been an international smorgasbord of everything from pho to rolled sushi to charcuterie boards.
“Everybody nibbles on the Thanksgiving dishes, but it gets exciting with the other stuff,” he said.
Joey LaBella and granddaughter Lena Tusca prepare Sunday lunch,
This Thanksgiving Day marks 20 years since Margy and Bill Raye moved into their compound abode.
Now retired from NOLA Restaurant, where he typically worked on Thanksgiving, Bill Raye will join the festivities this year. Margy Raye has been a part of the family businesses and Thanksgivings for decades. She says her cranberry bites (an appetizer of pizza dough filled with brie, cranberries and pecans, drizzled with rosemary) and key lime pie have become fan favorites at the event.
An impressive menu, however, is only part of this family’s recipe for creating memorable Thanksgivings. Working shoulder to shoulder over the years has endowed the extended clan with an appreciation of hard work and of loved ones — and a healthy portion of gratitude always accompanies the diverse spread.
Before sitting down to dinner, everyone in attendance forms a circle, joins hands and gives thanks.
“If you’re around this table, with this abundance of food and camaraderie and family, you have a lot to be thankful for,” said Judy LaBella, noting that there is also plenty of laughter to go around.
“We work too much to sweat the small stuff, and we’re super grounded,” Tusa said of her close-knit family. “We know paying it forward is part of being happy.”
Rose Hardeman, mother to Judy LaBella and Margy Raye, is no longer alive, but she lives on through her recipes. Robyn Schmitt wears her heirloom ring.
Schmitt, whose late father was Judy LaBella and Margy Raye’s brother, moved to the neighborhood after she and her husband, celebrating Father’s Day with the LaBella crew, spotted an empty lot just a stone’s throw away. She eventually built a brick house with wrought-iron accents inspired by the French Quarter.
“My husband and I went for a walk and he showed me the lot and asked what I thought about buying it. It brought tears to my eyes,” she said.
Schmitt credits both her Sicilian great-grandmother Lena and grandmother Rose with passing down her devotion to family, love of cooking and secret recipes.
Joey LaBella’s Sicilian ancestors also have strong ties to food and family. His father started LaBella’s meat market in 1966, and he worked there as a boy.
“We’re all raised and heavily rooted in a heritage that is based around food and love,” said Schmitt. “We’re also raised very proud of who we are and where we came from. In the end, it boils down to your family and your health.”
Sisters and family matriarchs Margy Raye and Judy LaBella in front of a photo wall full of family history.  
n, who makes pecan pie for the Compound Thanksgiving when not spending the holiday with relatives in Mississippi.
The LaBellas’ daughter Jeena Seals, who lives about a mile away and likewise learned to cook at her grandmother Rose’s side, is so passionate about the importance of family food culture that she teaches it in a Culinary Arts course at East Jefferson High School.
Her students do a food history project — in which they interview and video a family member about a favorite recipe — as a way to connect with their heritage and keep it alive.
“My grandmother used to drill me on her recipes,” said Seals. “It was important to her that it wasn’t lost.”
This Thanksgiving as in years past, Seals will bring the red gravy that her grandmother taught her to make.
“I always bring it and it always goes first because it’s old-school,” she said.
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