Rick Olivieri, 57, a grandson of cheesesteak inventor Pat Olivieri and the former owner of the popular Rick’s Steaks at Reading Terminal Market, died Sunday, June 12, at his Drexel Hill home after a 10-year battle with early onset frontotemporal dementia.
“He fought it for every minute,” said his wife, Debi, who met Mr. Olivieri in summer 1984, shortly after she took a job at the Bassetts turkey stand a few aisles away 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 fame. (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 good-looking guy” walked out of his way to pass Bassetts to dump his stand’s daily trash. “One day, he stopped and just stood there, staring at me.” It was awkward, she said, “so I sprayed him with Windex. That was impulsive. He gave me a look of disgust, but he 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’ve 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 management. After his father’s retirement in 1995, Mr. Olivieri opened his own stand, Rick’s Original Philly Steaks, at the market. In 2008, he left 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 doted on them and shared in their care. She also recalls his kindness, such as routinely pulling over to help stranded motorists. “We went to Wawa one night to get ice cream, and it was pouring rain,” Debi Olivieri said. “There was a mother and her teen daughter out there with a flat tire. He had them wait in the car and changed it. Those people never forgot him. They used to come in [to the stand] all the time.”
“Their relationship was an amazing one to see,” Chelsie Olivieri said. “My dad was very involved with me. He’d go on field trips and help me with my homework after a long day of working. He was a huge part of my entrepreneurial spirit, too, and inspired me in my business.” Chelsie Olivieri, who worked for her father as a teen and heeded his advice to stay out of the restaurant business, opened Rebel Nail Salon in Fishtown earlier this year.
After Reading Terminal, he opened stands at the Bellevue’s food court and the Shops at Liberty Place in Center City and also had concessions at Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field. His last stop was the Market at Liberty Place in Kennett Square, in late 2013. But in early 2014, he showed early signs of the disease known as FTD, which affects behavior and language. That cheesesteak stand closed.
“His youth was both a blessing and a curse,” Debi Olivieri said. When diagnosed “he had a young, healthy body” — explaining why he declined over a decade. The disease is “horrific,” she said. “It strips you of everything you are.”
The couple sold what Debi Olivieri called “our perfect home” in Springfield, Delaware County, and bought a duplex in Drexel Hill. In 2017, 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 — though he could laugh, she said — and was in hospice care for a year and a half.
He got attention by serving steaks at an annual festival held in Aix en Provence as part of France’s Sister Cities Program, and was featured in 2004 on Al Roker’s Roker 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, plus numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial service has been scheduled for Aug. 7, though the time and venue have not been determined.