Little Caesars Pizza founder and longtime chief Mike Ilitch died Friday at age 87.
Along with his wife, Marian, Ilitch opened his first pizzeria, Little Caesars Pizza Treat, in Garden City, Mich., in 1959, after an injury ended his career as a professional baseball player.
He would foster the discounting that characterized the sector by offering two pies for the price of one as an everyday deal. The bargain was underscored by a toga-clad Roman cartoon figure who’d chirp, “Pizza, pizza” in commercials.
The chain would grow into one of the industry’s largest national pizza chains, battling Pizza Hut and Domino’s Pizza. While Pizza Hut focused on dine-in service and Domino’s focused on delivery, Little Caesars staked out the takeout market.
Ilitch and his wife started backing out of day-to-day operations in 2000, naming their children, Christopher and Denise, as co-presidents. Christopher eventually added the title of CEO, a job he still holds, and Denise, an attorney, exited the business.
At least several of the couple’s five other children were also active in the business.
The chain’s parent company, Ilitch Holdings, remains family run. As head of the clan, Mike Ilitch had a net worth estimated by Forbes at more than $6 billion.
Ilitch was better known in recent years as the owner of professional sports teams, having acquired the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers in 1992 (from Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.) He had also owned a professional soft ball team, the Detroit Caesars, and the Detroit franchise of the Arena Football League, the Detroit Drive.
All of his endeavors were based in his native Detroit. The Ilitch family is inviting residents to share memories of their late patriarch at a public memorial erected at the Tiger's home field, Comerica Park.
"To everyone who has so graciously remembered Mike Ilitch, we extend a heartfelt 'thank you,'" the family said in a statement. "The volume of condolences and kind wishes overwhelm us, and we appreciate it more than words can express. We know that he would've been touched by the outpouring of support, especially from the community that he so loved."