Rick Olivieri back in the cheesesteak business
Back about 1930, when Pasquale "Pat" Olivieri invented the steak sandwich, the factory worker and son of Italian immigrants probably couldn't get through the front doors of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.
The Beaux Arts landmark on South Broad Street was the bastion of Philadelphia high society. Visiting royalty and wealthy industrialists could enjoy it, but not South Philly sandwich makers, not even one who styled himself the King of Steaks.
Yesterday at the Bellevue, however, you could not only buy a cheesesteak "wit' ," you could actually buy one made by Pat's grandson Rick.
Eight months after he turned off the sizzling grills at the Reading Terminal Market, ejected after a protracted dispute with management, Rick Olivieri returned with the grand opening of Rick's Steaks - Downstairs at the Bellevue.
"Being the classy guy that he was, I think my grandfather would have been pretty impressed that we got into one of the best hotels in the city," Olivieri, 44, said as he, his two daughters, and a group of employees stood waiting to cut a ceremonial string of Italian peppers onto the waiting grill.
If the Food Court at the Bellevue does not have quite the cachet and chaotic bustle of the historic market under the Reading train shed, there was no shortage of people to welcome Olivieri and wish him well.
"We've been looking for a real cheesesteak operation since we opened," said George Rubin, vice chairman of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, owner of the hotel building now known as the Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue. "But we wanted to get a real Philadelphia landmark."
At the Food Court, created 20 years ago in what used to be the hotel's main kitchen, Olivieri joins 11 other retailers serving items from sushi to souvlaki.
Andrew Speizman, Bellevue property manager, said the Food Court grosses from $2.5 million to $3 million a year, operating Monday through Saturday. Some food retailers open at 7 a.m. for breakfast, Speizman said, but most do business from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Olivieri's father, Herbert, opened the Reading Terminal location 27 years ago as Olivieri's Prince of Steaks, a play on Pat's title as king. Rick Olivieri began managing the site in 1995 and decided to name the shop after himself.
Rick Olivieri has no part in the business known as Pat's King of Steaks, the Old Original Still Run by the Olivieri Family, at Ninth and Wharton Streets. That business passed from Harry Olivieri, Pat's younger brother and coinventor of the steak sandwich, to Harry's grandson and Rick's cousin Frank, 45, who owns and operates the business.
Things were fine until Rick Olivieri became president of the Reading Terminal Market merchants group in the early '90s. With the office came an increasingly thorny relationship with management, which was trying to modernize leases with the notoriously idiosyncratic and independent merchants, and to strengthen the market's reputation as a genuine urban farm market shopped by Center City residents.
Things went from bad to worse, management did not renew Olivieri's lease, and Olivieri refused to leave. Lawsuits were filed and resulted in a settlement last June in which Olivieri agreed to vacate by Oct. 31, and market officials agreed not to force him to pay $29,686 in lease-overstay penalties and $696,512 in legal fees.
Olivieri's old window space on the 12th Street side of the market was stripped and vacant yesterday, although signs promised the imminent relocation of an expanded Fair Food Farmstand featuring locally grown produce.
Though the wounds may still be fresh, Olivieri was more interested in his new space and looking eagerly for familiar faces.
Joining him were daughters Chelsia, 17, and Kristin, 23, and all six employees from the Reading Terminal Market shop.
"They're an incredibly dedicated group of people," Olivieri said. "They stayed on unemployment for eight months waiting for me."
Also present were some of Olivieri's oldest customers: Frankie Lafaro, Bobby Burgese, Bob Dachari, and Matty Raimo - better known as the local doo-wop quartet Frankie and the Fashions.
Performing oldies for an appreciative lunchtime audience, Lafaro said he first went to Olivieri's in the 1980s, when he would record at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios on 12th Street near Race.
"We used to sing over there, too," Lafaro said of lunchtimes at the Reading Terminal Market. "Today, we're here singing for a cheesesteak wit'."
Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985