Gina Tullio

A new Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard shop opens in north Lakeland today. Owner Gina Tullio said she was inspired to open it both by childhood memories and pregnancy cravings.

Tullio, originally from New Jersey, grew up eating Rita’s frozen treats. Since moving to Lakeland two years ago, she had difficulty finding a Rita’s nearby. The need for one was exacerbated while she was pregnant and couldn’t eat much, she said. She developed a craving for Rita’s and would have her husband drive her to Clearwater to get some.

“We went and he was like, ‘Oh my God, this stuff is really good’ … He was shocked because we would go places and nowhere was busy because of Covid. Rita’s was like consistently busy,” Tullio said.

That’s what inspired her to open a franchise in Lakeland. Her shop’s walk-up windows open to customers today at 3115 U.S. 98 North in the Market Square Shopping Center just south of I-4.

Rita’s and its landscaped al fresco patio are at the south end of the Market Square Shopping Center at U.S. 98 North and Griffin Road. Owner Gina Tullio expects the sign marking the shop to be installed in about a month.

She ended up signing the franchise agreement on Jul. 29, 2020, while she was in labor with her first child.

“I was like, ‘ How does Lakeland have so many kids and families and have nothing in a similar product?’ ” Tullio said, adding she signed her franchise agreement before Andy’s Frozen Custard opened seven miles away in south Lakeland.

“I couldn’t imagine my childhood without a Rita’s, and I want other people to feel that same way with their kids, said Tullio, 26. “For me, Rita’s was always that family business your parents took you to when you did a good job.”

Tullio said the Italian ice will be made fresh on-site daily, with a rotating daily selection from more than 90 flavors. Custards flavors will change weekly. Other items on the menu include gelati, concretes and milkshakes.

“You’re not going to find somewhere that has Italian ice and custard. If you love Andy’s, even that product is not similar to ours. Our product is unique and you’re not going to find something like it,” Tullio said.

Previously, there were two Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard franchises in the Lakeland area; one was located further north on U.S. 98 near Lakeland Square mall, and the other was on U.S. 98 South in Highland City. Both have since closed. Tullio believes her franchise will be successful because she’ll be there daily and she said it’s in a better location.

“I would definitely say we’re in a high-traffic location and you can see us from the street …I think a lot of people who are moving here know what a Rita’s is and I’m going to be involved, “ Tullio said. “I’m 100 percent invested. I put every dollar we own and refinanced our house for this.”

The eatery will be open Monday through Friday from 2 to 8 p.m. and on the weekends from noon to 8 p.m.

Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard opened in Bensalem, Pa., in 1984, and has more than 600 shops worldwide.


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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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3 Comments

  1. Glad Rita’s is returning. I used to frequent Rita’s in Highland City before it closed some years ago. I’m be making a trip to North Lakeland now. Great job!!!!

  2. I can’t wait until later today and taste the Italian ice from Rita’s!! I haven’t had any since I left Germany in 1977!

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