Leonidas Kestekides, the Greek confectioner who conquered the world

Leonidas Kestekides, founder of Leonidas Chocolates. Credit: Greek Reporter Illustration / Public domain

The history of the world famous Leonidas chocolates and pralines is as rich as the confectionery itself. It all started with a Greek chocolatier, Leonidas Kestekides, who created the big candies because he ultimately just wanted to “spread happiness”.

The noble name of irresistible chocolates comes from Leonidas Kestekides, a young confectioner born in Cappadocia in Asia Minor in 1876.

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At the age of 17, Kestekides emigrated to the United States, where he quickly learned the art of chocolate making.

Upon his arrival he began working as a chocolate maker in New York City and remained there for five years. In 1898 Leonidas moved to Paris, where he practiced the fine arts of chocolate making for an additional decade.

Leonidas Kestekides chocolates presented at the Universal Exhibition

In 1910, he went to the Universal Exhibition in Brussels, where his chocolate confections won the bronze prize. Three years later, he parades again in Belgium for the Universal Exhibition in Ghent. There he married Jeanne Emelia Teerlinck – and ended up staying in the country for good.

Kestekides opened his first tearoom in 1910 in Ghent where, in addition to tea, he served his already famous chocolate candies. Other tearooms followed in Brussels and Blankenberge, and the Leonidas chocolate empire was born.

Kestekides said after his chocolates became as legendary as the brand’s great Spartan warrior: “I didn’t do it for the money. I didn’t do it for the glory. I did it because I wanted to spread some happiness.

In 1922, after political unrest in Greece following the Smyrna disaster, Kestekides’ nephew Basilio moved to Ghent to live with his uncle. Leonidas then took it upon himself to teach Basilio the fine arts of confectionery. The two complemented each other perfectly: one was a born salesperson and the other was a creative mind. Together they have created delicious pralines for an ever-growing market.

Basilio made it his personal mission to further develop his uncle’s business. In 1935, he moved to the capital Brussels and roamed the streets selling his uncle Leonidas’ pralines. After some trouble with the police, he decided to open his own shop.

Basilio’s first store was so small it didn’t even have a door. It was basically just a glass window with a narrow hallway.

This was the start of the sale through a sliding sash window, which later became the trademark of Leonidas Chocolates. In a very unique twist, the chocolates were made right in front of the potential customer.

The Leonidas Chocolate Empire

In 1937, Basilio finally decided to legally establish the family’s popular chocolates with a brand name. He honored his uncle using his first name and placed an image of the Greek warrior Leonidas on the logo. The name Leonidas is then registered with the city of Brussels.

The Leonidas Pralines company was even able to survive WWII, with Basilio somehow finding sources to buy cocoa and making the chocolates himself. He had procured such a large stock of sugar and cocoa in advance that he had enough to maintain production throughout the war.

At that time, Leonidas pralines were not a silly or futile indulgence as they perhaps were in pre-war times. They were made especially for children because they contained cream and sugar, as well as the necessary vitamins and minerals, which were very scarce during the war years.

Subsequently, Leonidas Kestekides began to retire from the company, gradually paving the way for his favorite nephew Basilio. Leonidas Kestekides died in 1948.

Leonidas had laid the foundations, and Basilio built the solid walls of the Leonidas chocolate empire. Leonidas’ nephew has kept his vision of making luxury products accessible to all.

Basilio moved the famous chocolate factory from 58 to 46 Boulevard Anspach, which is still used by the Leonidas company to this day; it has become a place of pilgrimage for chocolate lovers.

The first Leonidas store outside of Belgium opened in 1969 in Lille, France. The company then expanded to Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, England and later to Athens. Soon after, the famous pralines were introduced to the United States and Africa.

Basilio Kestekides died in 1970, the year the company first went public. However, the family retained an important role in the management of the business. After his death, the “Leonidas Confectionery” passed to Basilio’s brothers and sisters.

Jean Kesdekoglu-Kestekides took over and after a while his daughter Maria Kesdekoglu-Kestekides started to help.

Kestekides recipes still used today

From then on, things really took off for the Leonidas confectionery empire. Production increased and Confiserie Leonidas purchased the former Crown-Baele factory in Anderlecht, Belgium, at Graindorlaan 41-43, where the Leonidas company is also headquartered.

In 1980 Leonidas introduced white chocolate to its extensive menu of delicious sweets. Yet only a few of Leonidas Kestekides’ original recipes have changed over the years, and even then this was only done for practical purposes.

Leonidas pralines are always made from the finest cocoa, while the fillings are made with choice ingredients such as fresh butter, crème fraîche, Turkish hazelnuts, sour cherries, Italian almonds, walnuts and oranges from Valencia.

The popularity of pralines was such that until 1983 the Belgian government had even capped their price, just as the nations do for bread and milk, seeing Leonidas treats as an absolute necessity for life.

In addition to the original recipes of Leonidas Kestekides, his successors have added new ingredients and products over the decades, and today stores offer a hundred different types of chocolate confectionery.

New inspirations have come, from different sources, and these are combined with the original chocolate recipes to woo palates from Brussels to New York, and from Paris to Hong Kong.

The company opened another factory in Anderlecht, Belgium, as the new millennium arrived to meet growing international demand, as the United States and Asian countries fully embraced Leonidas pralines.

The largest store under the name Leonidas is located on rue au Beurre in Brussels. The Leonidas brand now has 350 stores in Belgium and more than 1,200 in some fifty countries around the world, ensuring that the distribution of this delicious little treat has been as successful as Kestekides had hoped.

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