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3 Island artisans who create delicious, handcrafted ice cream

A row of trays filled with gelato Gypsea Gelato offers a range of flavors including (from left) Mauka Trail, 100% Kona Coffee, Oreo Cookie, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, Salted Caramel, and Lemon Cookie. Photo by Aly Dove

In Hawai‘i, artisanal gelato and ice cream makers throughout the state have loyal followings. Many operate family-owned businesses—handcrafting their products in small batches—and have inspiring stories to share about their versions of America’s favorite dessert. The 3 kama‘āina we spotlight here don’t have culinary backgrounds.

They started their companies for a simple reason: They love ice cream and the way it can magically lift a heavy heart and light up a solemn face. They’re hands-on with flavor creation. Nearly every idea, however outlandish, is literally on the table—and happy customers keep coming back for more. We also introduce you to 7 additional ice cream shops serving up memorable flavors to try, just for licks.

O‘ahu: IL Gelato

Fior di latte and yogurt gelato with fresh berries

Fior di latte and yogurt gelato with fresh berries. Photo by Felix Koeppenkastrop

A doctorate in physical chemistry from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa helped Dirk Koeppenkastrop excel in an occupation that gives him great satisfaction: owner and maestro gelatiere of IL Gelato.

After earning that degree in 1992, Koeppenkastrop worked in the analytical chemistry field for 19 years, managing laboratories in Hawai‘i and Germany. Embedded in his mind, however, were fond memories of growing up with gelato in Bochum, Germany.

“In the summer, the ice cream wagon came by my house every day, ringing its bell,” he said. “We kids always bought something, and over the years I kept thinking, I love gelato; why not learn how to make it?” 

In 2009, while Koeppenkastrop was in Hamburg, Germany, working as an executive for Eurofins, the world's largest food-testing lab, he began using vacation time to attend weeklong gelato-making courses at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. His knowledge of chemistry made understanding the process easy, and he earned the Master Gelato Maker title in 2010. That same year, Koeppenkastrop and his wife, Nicole Lueker, opened their first IL Gelato, realizing a longtime dream of settling in Hawai‘i.

Twenty of more than 200 flavors are available daily in their 6 O‘ahu locations. Ingredients include dark chocolate from Belgium; açai from Brazil; yuzu, matcha, and azuki beans from Japan; pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts from Italy; pineapples and Meyer lemons from O‘ahu; pineapples from Maui; and Kona coffee and macadamia nuts from Hawai‘i Island.

A perennial favorite is Hawai‘i Sea Salt Caramel: house-made caramel and Hawaiian sea salt swirled in milk- and cream-based fior di latte (Italian for “flower of the milk”) gelato. The sweet, salty, and bitter (burnt caramel) flavors meld with creamy gelato, gooey caramel, and crunchy salt crystals.

“My employees jokingly call me IL Gelato’s best customer because I eat almost a pint of our gelato every day,” Koeppenkastrop said. “Gelato has one-third less sugar and fat than ice cream, so it’s okay to eat 3 times as much of it, right?” Starts at $5.95 for a scoop.

Also try...

Wing Ice Cream Parlor: Some wild flavors recently on the menu: pizza, poke, Cheez-It, roasted garlic, Grey Poupon, and Maui onion and sour cream. (Only the pizza might make a comeback.) Located in Honolulu’s Chinatown. Starts at $5.75 for a scoop.

Double Fat Ice Cream: Crack Seed Delight: strawberry ice cream, sweet cream, seedless mui, li hing powder, condensed milk, kaki mochi, whipped cream. Located at the ‘Alohihani Resort in Waikīkī. $9.

You may also like: 4 fun foodie neighborhoods in Hawai‘i

Maui: Island Cream Company

Chocolate ice cream in a paper cup

Cup of chocolate ice cream. Photo courtesy Island Cream Company

I can make it better. That’s what Dan Blessing of Island Cream Company. thought when he began seriously taste-testing gelato and ice cream in 2013. He found that, overall, gelato lacked full, strong flavors. And inexpensive ice creams often contained a lot of air—they were light and fluffy but void of a luxurious mouthfeel.

Blessing began experimenting in his home kitchen, armed with knowledge he had acquired as the president of a company with a division that, over 40 years, had developed dozens of formulas for the car wash industry. “I learned there’s an effective, efficient process for homogenizing things based on understanding harmony between products,” he said.

The result? Not gelato and not ice cream, but what Blessing dubbed “island cream,” which he says offers both the intense flavors of the finest gelato and the smooth, creamy texture of premium ice cream. Since he launched Island Cream Company in 2014, he has created more than 200 flavors; 36 are in the rotation at the Lahaina shop on any given day.

Everything is made fresh, from the hot fudge and creams to the cakes, breads, and cookies to the vanilla, chocolate, and cinnamon cones. Two top sellers are Coconut Poi (made with real poi); and Banana Maui, warm banana bread (Blessing’s late grandmother’s recipe) paired with vanilla island cream, fresh bananas, brandy, and banana liqueur.

Sposhy shave ice

“Sposhy” shave ice. Photo courtesy Island Cream Company

“Sposhy” shave ice might include a mini scoop of island cream (your choice); a topping of condensed milk, fresh mango and strawberries; and a puree of mango or strawberry; with boba on the side.

Blessing creates all of Island Cream’s recipes and products. “I’m constantly observing what people enjoy and thinking about how we can improve our flavors and come up with new ones,” he said. “The possibilities are endless, which makes the process fun, interesting, and tasty!”

Starts at $6.25 for a single scoop or 2 mini scoops of different flavors.

Also try…

Paia Gelato: Gelato Cake is an 8-inch round cake with a brownie or sponge cake base that can be layered with 3 or 4 flavors of your choice. Options include Mango Passion Cheesecake (pictured; with mango sorbetto, passion fruit sorbetto, and cheesecake gelato). Serves 8 to 12. Paia. $35.95.

Coconut Glen’s: Golden Cream has coconut milk, cane sugar, turmeric, honey, and black pepper. All of this shop’s vegan ice creams are made with coconut milk. Located on the Hāna Highway in Nahiku. $8 for 8 ounces (choice of 2 flavors) served in a half coconut shell.

Maui Gelato: The Sampler tops a Belgian waffle (original batter recipe) topped with fresh strawberries; house-made peach compote; and blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry compote; banana with caramel and toasted coconut; house-made whipped cream; and choice of gelato, which could be Island Roots, made with coconut milk and Maui-grown purple sweet potato. Kīhei. $12.95.

Maui Sweet Shoppe: Cookie Sandwiches with ice cream filling between house-made cookies are rolled in Oreos, Fruity Pebbles cereal, and nuggets of coconut macaroon and chocolate macadamia nut candy. Kīhei. $11.95.

Hawai‘i  Island: Gypsea Gelato

Pele’s Kiss (chocolate gelato, cinnamon, and Hawaiian chile pepper)

Pele’s Kiss (chocolate gelato, cinnamon, and Hawaiian chile pepper). Photo by Aly Dove

Tim Heaton and his wife, Sandra, have held a variety of jobs (he even dispatched AAA tow trucks in Southern California), and in 2012, as they pondered their next move, thoughts turned to their favorite treat: gelato. “At the time, we were living in the Caribbean, where I was the captain of a liveaboard yacht that took people on dive excursions,” Tim says. “We were both dive instructors with captain’s licenses, but boating wasn’t something we wanted to do as a business. The idea popped up: Could we make a living making gelato?”

In 2013, the couple completed a 3-day class in New York City with Gianluigi Dellaccio, a gelato master from Italy, feeling confident they could be successful at it. The following year, they moved to Hawai‘i Island and opened Gypsea Gelato in a small space in Kealakekua that housed their office, retail store, and a 300-square-foot kitchen they shared with a pastry chef. Today, the company operates a 3,500-square-foot factory and store in neighboring Kainaliu and 2 other stores in Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa Beach Resort.

Inspiration for flavors often comes from things Tim and Sandra enjoy eating. Such was the case with Tom Kha, which, like its namesake (a traditional Thai soup), contains ginger, lemongrass, coconut, and turmeric. Those ingredients are sourced locally along with many others, including coffee, mint, lemon, orange, dragon fruit, white pineapple, and apple banana.

Ten “staples,” including Tom Kha, are usually on Gypsea Gelato’s menu. An additional 10 to 12 are available on a rotating basis, chosen from some 500 flavors the Heatons have created over the years. Options might be Mashti (rosewater, saffron, and pistachio); Pele’s Kiss (chocolate, cinnamon, and Hawaiian chile pepper); and Goat Cheese Salad (goat cheese, strawberries, pecans, and balsamic glaze).

The Heatons are hands-on with production and eat gelato every day, whether it’s tasting batches in the factory or savoring it from pints they always have at home. “We love making gelato,” Tim says, “and we love, love, love eating it!”

Also try…

Tropical Dreams Ice Cream: Chocolate-coconut-macadamia nut ice cream is available at stores, restaurants, and supermarkets throughout Hawai‘i Island. A scoop at Da Hawaiian Brain Freeze in Hilo is $5; a pint at Foodland in Waimea is $8.99.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi’s go-to comfort food is ice cream, whether it be as a bar, shake, split, sandwich, sundae, float, in a cone, or all by its luscious self.

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