Renaissance man Tony Luke is a Philly guy with many talents

Tony Luke meets with dignitaries at the grand opening of Tony Luke's sandwich shop in the Middle Eastern island of Bahrain.
Tony Luke meets with dignitaries at the grand opening of Tony Luke's sandwich shop in the Middle Eastern island of Bahrain.
Posted: February 08, 2011

A FEW years ago, a psychic told Tony Luke Jr. he hadn't survived childhood in any of his previous 10 lifetimes. Maybe that's why the South Philly native is driven to lead so many different lives in his current incarnation.

Carrying a tattoo-bedecked, 340-plus pounds and sporting a cleanshaven head, twin diamond stud earrings and a serious goatee, the man born Anthony Lucidonio Jr. may look like a loan shark's collector or a nightclub bouncer, but he is a wildly successful businessman who runs an ever-expanding international dining and frozen-food business.

And a film actor who has earned national acclaim starring in a movie he also conceived and co-wrote (see accompanying article).

And a singer-songwriter whose music has been recorded by national acts.

And a local TV star.

And a former kickboxing champ.

And a passionate advocate of making the world a more nurturing, safe place for kids.

Not that there was any hint of a renaissance man in the young Tony Luke Jr. "I was actually pretty much an introvert," he admitted. "I was that kid that never fit. I was a dreamer. My family never got me."

More to the point - maybe as a result of his tragic past lives - Luke, who named 20th-century psychic and reincarnation proponent Edgar Cayce as his spiritual hero, allowed how, as a youngster: "I was very spiritual [and] a little moody. I never liked being here. I never liked the way [people] interacted with each other. I felt uncomfortable. It was almost as if I didn't like the planet Earth.

"I know I don't look spiritual or philosophical," he continued, "but I am."

From the streets

Back then, there was no hint of what Luke, who turns 49 next month, would become. He insisted to his family he'd one day make something of himself, but they weren't buying it.

"I didn't know he could [succeed], not at the time he said it," offered his father and namesake, Anthony Lucidonio Sr. (also known as Tony Luke).

Luke Jr. is a self-described "street kid" from 8th and McClellan whose youth was defined by fighting and hustling as his dad struggled in various, low-paying food-service jobs. His methamphetamine addiction from age 14 to 17 makes his rags-to-riches saga that much more dramatic.

An overdose led him to re-evaluate his life and kick the drug cold turkey. Today, he uses tales of his time as a speed freak to show the students to whom he frequently speaks that nothing in life is too difficult to overcome.

Show business certainly did not loom large as a possible career path in the Lucidonio household, where Luke Jr.'s early artistic aspirations did not sit well with his old-school family.

"They told me, 'Be content. There's nothing wrong with getting a rowhome and going to work 9-5. Go to work every day and raise a family and shut up,' " he recalled. "But . . . I wanted something else."

To this day, Luke Sr. marvels at his son's multiple performing talents and wonders about their source.

"I have [no talent]," he said. "My [ex-wife] don't have any. I don't know where he got it."

Despite the lack of familial support, Luke found his way to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, near Broad and Carpenter streets, after attending St. Nicholas of Tolentine school. Studying there would do nothing less than "change my life," he said. The school nurtured his love of music - and more.

"Going to CAPA opened my eyes [to a] world beyond what I had known," he said. "It was the first time in my life I truly began judging people on the basis of their character, with no preconceived notions."

When asked what he would do if he had to give up all but one of his activities, professional and otherwise, he didn't hesitate.

"Being a singer-songwriter - there's nothing in my life, other than the birth of my kids, that gives me the feeling I get when I'm in a studio or writing a song," he said, referring to sons Tony III, 29, Michael, 26, and Joey, 23, all of whom work for their dad. "Music is the most important thing in the world to me."

But Luke married at 18 (he and his wife of 31 years are in the midst of a divorce) and couldn't follow his dream of moving to Los Angeles to pursue a life in show business after graduating from high school. With a family to support, he had little choice but to join his father in a series of quick-dining ventures like lunch trucks and other odd jobs.

The creative muse never abandoned him, although Luke may not have spent the 1980s as a rock star. He did score in another area: In 1982-83, he was a multistate kickboxing champion.

A star is born under I-95

In the early '90s, the family - including Luke's younger brother Nicky - purchased a property on the north side of Oregon Avenue just east of Front Street, hard by I-95. There they built the original Tony Luke's stand by hand themselves.

Not wanting to compete with cheesesteak institutions like Geno's and Pat's, the Lukes decided to offer an extended menu with hoagies, chicken and veal parmigiana sandwiches along with their signature steaks and roast pork sandwiches.

As the business found solid ground, the Lukes began to appreciate Tony Jr.'s unorthodox ways. They even encouraged him to take over the store's marketing.

Thanks to Luke's larger-than-life persona and his savvy promotional ideas (including serving ostrich steaks, which paid huge publicity dividends), that single store has grown into a mini-empire. There are regional outlets (including Springfield Mall, Citizens Bank Park and The Borgata in Atlantic City), and national and international expansions are in motion. Late last year, he flew to Bahrain to open the first of a planned 60 Tony Luke's operations in the Middle East.

Thousands of supermarkets stock Tony Luke's Pronto, a line of frozen cheesesteaks, chicken cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches marketed by TR Philly Foods World Wide LLC, of which he serves as CEO.

The company is a partnership with Ray Rastelli Jr., president of Rastelli Foods Group of Swedesboro, N.J., a multinational food distributor, which explains that Bahrain connection. Rastelli has customers in the country.

'They get me now'

For Luke, earning his father and brother's approval - not his success as an entrepreneur - may be his greatest accomplishment to date.

"It makes me feel good that the two people I respect most in life get me now," he said. "That I've gotten to the point that my father is proud of me, that my brother is proud of me . . . means more to me than anything."

Luke, who lives in a condo overlooking the Delaware River near SugarHouse Casino, may be a success, but he is not the most enthusiastic capitalist in town. "I hate [being a businessman]," he complained. "That's why I have people to help me. I'm just lazy when it comes to number-crunching."

Among the number-crunchers Luke relies on most are Rastelli, a serious, somewhat conservative captain-of-industry type whom Luke describes - and he's not kidding - as his "soul mate," and John Betz, a preppy restaurant franchise veteran who owns the Springfield Mall Tony Luke's stand as the chain's only domestic licensee. (All the other existing outlets are owned by combinations of Luke, his dad and brother. Overseas locations will be franchised, while all future U.S. stores will be co-owned by TR Philly Foods and Betz, who owns four New Jersey Starbucks, three of them in Atlantic City casinos, and other area franchises.

In separate interviews, both men spoke in personal and surprisingly similar ways about their partner. They used the words "genuine" and "passionate" in describing Luke. Betz called him a "teddy bear" and recalled their initial meeting in almost touchy-feely terms.

"What got me were his eyes and his smile," Betz said. "I could feel he was a genuine person. That meant more than the tattoos and earrings."

The man and his media

His business success has allowed Luke to indulge in his true love, making music, but he's no dilettante fantasizing about being a star. He has written scores of songs, favoring a Philly soul-style R&B sound. His titles include an unreleased Billy Paul track, "When the Lovin' Gets Tough," and "I'm Just A Man," which was covered by Motown Records artist A.C. Black.

On Friday, Luke will be at the Coastline in Cherry Hill to debut his latest musical project, a remake of Sergio Mendes' 1983 hit "Never Gonna Let You Go," recorded as a duet with Jade Starling of Pretty Poison.

Luke's ability to, as she put it, "make a sandwich and a hit record" impressed Starling, known for the 1987 hit "Catch Me I'm Falling." She described his singing voice as "velvety smooth and sexy."

As if all this weren't enough, Luke channeled his love for the Eagles into "Tony Luke's Eaglemania," a quick-paced, offbeat look at the Delaware Valley's pro football culture that aired throughout the recent season at 11:30 p.m. Saturdays on Channel 6, pulling respectable ratings even up against "Saturday Night Live."

Not that he was a stranger to the small screen before the show's September premiere.

Foodies around the country already knew him from appearances on such popular cable programs as "Man V. Food" and "Bobby Flay's Throwdown." On the latter, he defeated uberchef Flay in a cheesesteak-making contest.

Luke also took it upon himself to star in a music video, "Watch the Mummers Strut," a fund-raiser for the annual cake walk up Broad Street.

All this may sound formidable, but for a man who appears to go at life full on, Luke still regards himself as something of a glass half-empty. To hear him tell it, he's yet to do anything noteworthy.

"It's not about how much money I have," he philosophized. "It's not about Tony Luke's movies or how many stores I open. I feel I'm at the point in life where I'm finally allowed to start, now that I have [the public's] attention.

"I have so much more to do. I haven't even begun to do what I wanna do. I wanna talk to kids, kids like me from the streets, and get them to understand that putting a bullet in somebody's head is not the [way to live]. I wanna tell them that everyone can make a difference.

"I wanna be able to say before I die I did everything I could to be a better human being. I'm not here to impress you. I'm here to do what I can to make a difference. That's all I ever wanted.

"My greatest fear is dying without making a difference."

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