Mike Ilitch, Founder of Little Caesars and Owner of Detroit Red Wings, Tigers, Dies at 87

Mike Ilitch rose from a humble west-side neighborhood to assemble a food, sports and entertainment empire that enabled him to return the Stanley Cup to Hockeytown, build both a new arena and a ballpark with a Ferris wheel, restore the grandeur of downtown’s iconic Fox Theatre and introduce metro Detroit to the concepts of “pizza-pizza” and an $8 cup of beer.

From his first Little Caesars outlet in Garden City strip mall in 1959 — where a pizza cost $2.39 — Ilitch, aided at every step by Marian, his wife of 61 years, became a major metro Detroit personality and a key figure in the revival of downtown Detroit. In addition to founding the Little Caesars pizza chain, he owned the Red Wings, Tigers and the Fox Theatre, and operated city-owned Joe Louis, Cobo, and Little Caesars arenas, among other smaller businesses, teams and restaurants.

Ilitch, one of the most famous Detroiters of his time, has died at the age of 87.

Success brought Ilitch and his family fabulous wealth. The 2016 Forbes magazine compilation of the 400 richest Americans listed Mike and Marian Ilitch at No. 88 with a net worth of $5.4 billion. In addition, Marian Ilitch is the sole owner of the Motor City Casino.

But perhaps more important to Ilitch were a different set of statistics: four Stanley Cup championships for his Red Wings, two trips to the World Series for his Detroit Tigers, and a vast number of trophies for team and individual player achievements.

Ilitch, whose first job was cleaning vehicles in a used-car lot, frequently expressed astonishment at the way his life seemed to imitate the plot of a Horatio Alger tale.

“At times, it’s kind of like I’m still dreaming,” Ilitch said in 1984.

In May 2009, speaking to Free Press columnist Tom Walsh about Little Caesars’ 50th anniversary, Ilitch said: “You know, we didn’t plan this. It just happened over the years, where there was an opportunity and we relied on our instincts and went ahead with it.”

Ilitch’s success made him one of the best known people in Michigan. But he often squirmed in the limelight and appeared uneasy even in gentle interviews. He was intense and reserved. He kept his businesses private, and he could bristle when asked about internal matters, such as his financial relationship with the city of Detroit, which benefitted greatly from his presence and lured him with public funds.

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Source: USA Today | John Gallagher and Bill McGraw, Detroit Free Press