Billionaire pizza tycoon Mike Ilitch, the patriarch of the Little Caesars empire, died Friday at the age of 87, the Associated Press reports. A business man first, Ilitch and his wife Marian together built one of the world’s largest carryout enterprises on a mountain of Hot-n-Ready pizzas and the catchy slogan “Pizza! Pizza!”
The couple founded the company in 1959 in the Detroit suburb of Garden City, Michigan, and grew it into a $3.4 billion per year business. Beginning in the early 80s the Ilitches began branching out into into athletics and entertainment, purchasing the Red Wings hockey team and later the Detroit Tigers baseball team, downtown Detroit’s Fox Theatre, and the MotorCity Casino Hotel.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” president and CEO Christopher Ilitch said in a statement.
Ilitch was a complicated figure, too. The family recently received a mix of praise and criticism, when their privately-owned corporation Ilitch Holdings Inc., somewhat controversially began redeveloping a massive section of Midtown Detroit with the help of public funds. The “District Detroit” will include a new hockey arena dubbed the Little Caesars arena, a new Little Caesar’s world headquarters campus, and several residential and commercial neighborhoods surrounding the entertainment district. However, he was also known for acts of kindness. The Detroit Free Press reports that the pizza mogul once assisted in paying civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ rent in the mid-1990s.
Following the announcement, sports and Little Caesars Pizza fans across the country paid tribute Ilitch.
Toasting my hometown #Detroit and a man who believed in it tonight. Sorry to hear of the passing of #MikeIlitch, controversial though he may have been at times. When I was ripped from the city I love and first moved into my Wisconsin rental, a huge smile crossed my face when I went around the corner to the local strip mall and there was a #LittleCaesars #PizzaPizza place smiling at me. It is a comforting slice of home whenever I need it. It has expanded so successfully that when I told the kid behind the counter that the owner had died today, he didn't even know who he was(!) . . . #DetroitCity #Motorcity #Pizza #DetroitRedWings #DetroitTigers
Mike Ilitch wrote me back when I was four years old and wanted to be a hockey player pic.twitter.com/klqWdSnKMk— anthony fenech (@anthonyfenech) February 11, 2017
The family is expected to hold a private funeral service. The details of the public memorial are still forthcoming.
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