Rick Olivieri, 57, grandson of cheesesteak inventor Pat Olivieri and former owner of popular Rick’s Steaks at Reading Terminal Market, died on Sunday June 12 at his home in Drexel Hill after a 10-year battle with dementia early frontotemporal.
‘He fought for every minute,’ said his wife, Debi, who met Mr Olivieri in the summer of 1984 shortly after taking a job at the Bassetts turkey stand a few aisles from Olivieri Prince of Steaks, where Mr. Olivieri had worked for his father, Herb, a son of Pasquale “Pat” Olivieri of Pat’s King of Steaks. (Pat’s, at Ninth and Wharton streets for 90 years, is operated by Frank Olivieri, his cousin.)
Debi Olivieri, then Debi Pagano, noticed how “this handsome guy” walked away to pass Bassetts to throw away the daily trash from his stand. “One day he stopped and just stood there looking at me.” It was awkward, she says, “so I sprayed it with Windex. It was impulsive. He gave me a disgusted look, but came back the next day.
After about six months, Debi said, “I agreed to go out with him. He was the most interesting person I have ever met. I only knew meatheads from South Philadelphia. He was articulate, funny and had a great personality.
Mr. Olivieri graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in business administration. After his father retired in 1995, Mr. Olivieri opened his own stand, Rick’s Original Philly Steaks, at the market. In 2008 he quit after losing a court battle with market management.
The Olivieris, who married in 1986, have two daughters, Kristin and Chelsie. As a young father, his wife said, he adored them and shared their care. She also remembers his kindness, such as regularly stopping to help stranded motorists. “We went to Wawa one night to get some ice cream, and it was raining,” Debi Olivieri said. “There was a mother and her teenage daughter there with a flat tire. He made them wait in the car and changed it. These people have never forgotten him. They were entering [to the stand] all the time.”
“Their relationship was amazing to watch,” Chelsie Olivieri said. “My father was very involved with me. He would go on excursions and help me with my homework after a long day at work. He also played an important role in my entrepreneurial spirit and inspired me in my business. Chelsie Olivieri, who worked for her father as a teenager and took his advice to stay out of the restaurant business, opened Rebel Nail Salon in Fishtown earlier this year.
After Reading Terminal, it opened stalls at the Bellevue food court and Liberty Place shops in the city center and also had concessions at Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field. His last stop was Liberty Place Market in Kennett Square in late 2013. But in early 2014 he showed early signs of the condition known as FTD, which affects behavior and language. This cheesesteak stand has closed.
“His youth was both a blessing and a curse,” said Debi Olivieri. When he was diagnosed, “he had a young, healthy body” – which is why he declined for a decade. The disease is “horrible,” she says. “It strips you of everything you are.”
The couple sold what Debi Olivieri called “our perfect home” in Springfield, Delaware County, and purchased a duplex in Drexel Hill. In 2017, his daughter Chelsie and her husband, Jeremiah, moved back from Denver to live upstairs so she could help care for her father. Debi Olivieri said her husband lost the ability to speak about four years ago – although he could laugh, she said – and had been in hospice care for a year and a half.
It attracted attention serving steaks at an annual festival held in Aix en Provence as part of France’s Sister Cities programme, and was featured in 2004 on Al Roker’s rock on the road series, in an episode titled “Sandwich Heroes”.
Besides his wife and daughters, he is survived by his mother, Faye, and his sister, Caron, as well as numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial service is scheduled for August 7, although the time and location have not been determined.