As soon as the weather gets warmer, there’s nothing like a frozen sweet treat that hits the spot on a sunny afternoon. Sure, you could go for a scoop of ice cream, but you could also go for a refreshing cup of Italian ice. And fortunately, you don’t have to travel to Italy to get it—you can simply head over to your neighborhood Rita’s Italian Ice. With more than 600 locations across 30 states, Rita’s has become a summertime staple for kids and adults alike, serving up its namesake Italian ice, as well as frozen custard, soft serve ice cream, and more to hungry fans.
While you may know your favorite flavor (Cookies and Cream, anyone?) and your favorite toppings (whipped cream, of course), you may be surprised to learn more about the national chain, like how it all started and what the most popular flavors are. Here are some of the lesser-known facts about Rita’s Italian Ice.
Rita’s started on a front porch in Philadelphia
We love a good start-up story—and the history of Rita’s Italian Ice doesn’t disappoint. It all begin in 1984, when a former Philadelphia firefighter by the name of Bob Tumolo decided to sell Italian ice from his front porch in Bensalem, a suburb of Philly, as a way to make a little extra money. With the help of his mother, Elizabeth, Bob perfected his recipe using fresh fruit. The name of his new endeavor? Rita’s, in honor of his wife (via Santa Clarita Magazine).
Just three years later, by the end of 1987, Bob and his brother John had expanded to three additional locations across Philadelphia. Given the high demand, in 1989, Bob chose to start franchising out Rita’s, and the rest—as they say—is history. The only downside? According to Thrillist, Bob sadly divorced Rita in 2005.
You can get free Rita’s Italian Ice on one day every year
The only thing better than Rita’s Italian Ice is free Rita’s Italian Ice. That’s what you can get on the first day of spring every year at your local stop. It’s been an annual tradition at the chain for more than 25 years, and is something that fans look forward to when March rolls around. "Just our way of kicking off the season—and spreading a little happiness," Rita’s says on its website. The event began in 1992 and, according to Lehigh Valley Live, has given out millions of free cups of Italian ice across the country every year on that day alone.
Unfortunately for customers, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rita’s canceled the Italian ice giveaway in 2020 and again in 2021 to avoid large crowds and in order to keep everyone safe, Penn Live reports. They’re the only times that Rita’s has had to call off the annual event.
There are over 95 Rita’s flavors made fresh every single day
If you’re someone who likes a lot of options when it comes to Italian ice, you’ll love the extensive lineup at Rita’s. The chain offers a rotating cast of more than 95 unique flavors, each of which is made fresh in-store every morning. Some of the flavors include Florida Orange, Chocolate, Cookies and Cream, Margarita, and even Unicorn. According to Thrillist, every batch must be sold within 36 hours of mixing, so you can ensure you’re getting a fresh cup whenever you go.
Not sure which one to choose? You likely can’t go wrong with Mango, which Rita’s reveals in its FAQ section is the most popular flavor among customers. Runners-up include Cherry and Swedish Fish. For the health-conscious, you can also opt for Rita’s new All-Natural Italian Ice, which the company says is made without any artificial colors or flavors.
It was originally called Rita’s Water Ice
You may know it now as Rita’s Italian Ice, but the popular attraction wasn’t always called that. The national chain actually started out as Rita’s Water Ice. If you’re confused, you’re not alone—many people don’t know the difference between Italian ice and water ice. And here’s the plot twist: There is no difference. According to Wide Open Eats, Italian ice and water ice are exactly the same thing. They’re a non-dairy frozen treat that’s made from blending ice and sweetened fruit juice together for a texture slightly firmer than a smoothie. Water ice is merely the Philadelphia slang term for Italian ice.
Some Philly locals may disagree, though. Eater describes water ice as "looser than Italian ice and smoother than shaved ice" and something that’s exclusive to Philadelphia. Regardless of what you call it, however, Rita’s recipe has remained largely unchanged (and delicious) since the chain first opened its doors.
Rita’s offers an extended menu at select locations
Rita’s may be most famous for its Italian ice and other assortment of frozen treats—including custards, Gelatis (layers of Italian ice and custard), and Blendinis (Italian ice and custard blended together)—but the chain also has a few non-frozen treats. They aren’t offered everywhere, but if you’re lucky to live close to one of the Rita’s locations with an extended menu, they’re worth checking out. One of the most popular special snacks is the Custard Cookie Sandwich, which Rita’s describes as "a treat that’s hard to beat." You’ll get the company’s famous frozen custard sandwiched between your choice of fluffy chocolate chip cookies or Oreo cookies and, if you’re feeling extra, a heavy helping of sprinkles.
Thrillist also reports that select stores have additional food on the menu, like soft pretzels (called "Tasty Twisters"). And in 2015, Rita’s partnered with Sandella’s Flatbread Cafe to start offering wraps, paninis, and even flatbread pizzas in some shops. Hungry yet?!