John 'Johnny Beef' DeSipio, 77

Posted: March 25, 2006

John Nicholas DeSipio, 77, the retired boss man of Old Original Nick's Roast Beef at 20th and Jackson Streets in South Philly, died of complications of Alzheimer's disease Tuesday at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby.

Mr. DeSipio, a lifelong resident of South Philadelphia, started working in his father's beef-and-ale business when he was a child. Nicholas DeSipio founded the restaurant in 1938. Mr. DeSipio and his brother, Eugene, who died in 1989, picked up the beef on their bicycles at 11th and Federal Streets before going to school in the morning. After school, they made sandwiches.

Mr. DeSipio graduated in 1946 from South Philadelphia High School and worked in the sandwich house for the rest of his life.

When their father died in 1961, the two sons took over the business. Mr. DeSipio, known as "Johnny Beef" to his friends, had a great girth - 275 pounds, said his daughter, Lili McKinney. He stood at the steam table cooking and hand-carving premium roast beef for sandwiches smothered in gravy for more than half a century.

The place became popular, drawing celebrities such as Joey Bishop, Buddy Ryan, Dick Clark, Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como and Rocky Marciano.

"Cast members from ABC-TV's Extreme Makeover ate there" while filming in South Philadelphia three to four months ago, McKinney said.

"Clients were a great mix of people - blue-collar, students, neighbors, the famous."

Of course, a large photograph of Frank Sinatra singing - in a tuxedo, microphone in hand, knee up - hung prominently next to the bar.

"He used to bring his limousine and get someone to run in for roast beef sandwiches," Mr. DeSipio said of Sinatra in a 1991 Inquirer article.

Over the years, the family operation expanded to a second Philadelphia spot at Juniper and Walnut Streets and seven outlying Nick's restaurants.

As the company grew, "things didn't go so great," McKinney said.

The company closed all the restaurants in 1993 save for the original location at 20th and Jackson, and another restaurant in Springfield, Delaware County, she said.

Mr. DeSipio retired that same year.

"My father was a perpetual bachelor until he met my mother," McKinney said. It was in 1974 that he met Ginette Lapeyronnie, a pretty French girl who been attending beauty school in South Philly.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. DeSipio is survived by two grandchildren.

Friends may visit at 9 a.m. Monday at Leonetti-O'Leary Funeral Home, Broad and Wolf Streets. A Funeral Mass will follow at 11 at St. Monica Church, 17th and Ritner Streets. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Sproul and Crum Creek Roads, Marple Township.

Donations may be made to the Alzheimer's Association, Delaware Valley Chapter, 100 N. 17th St., Suite 2, Philadelphia 19103.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or gsims@phillynews.com.

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