TONY LUKE Jr. isn't nearly the man he used be. And that's one of two reasons the 50-year-old cheesesteak-and-roast-pork entrepreneur may be the happiest he's ever been (more on the second reason later).
A year ago, when I profiled the modern-day Renaissance man for the Daily News, Luke didn't so much tip the scales; he crushed them, weighing almost 350 pounds. But just about a year later, here is Luke (real name, Anthony Lucidonio Jr.) sitting at a back table in his favorite Italian eatery, the deep-in-the-heart-of-South Philly Franco & Luigi's, carrying a mere 243 pounds on an impressively toned, 5-foot-9-inch frame.
The story of Luke's dramatic weight loss began in his bed very early one morning during the last week of February 2011.
"I was on blood pressure medicine and a sleep apnea machine," he said. "The blood pressure medicine was a diuretic, so I had to get up and pee. I take the apnea machine off, but I can't get off the bed. I'm too fat! I had to rock myself out of the bed. I finally got out of the bed, but I could barely walk. My knees couldn't support the weight."
Bad enough, but the kicker was yet to come. "I dragged myself to the bathroom, and as I'm leaving, I turn and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror," he continued. "I couldn't believe I allowed myself to get to that point. I almost didn't recognize myself. That's how big I had become! "That's when I said, 'OK. It stops today!' "
Luke, an accomplished actor, musician and TV personality, as well as a local food-industry giant and philanthropist, immediately embarked on a self-created program of diet and exercise that resulted in a loss of about 25 pounds in less than two months. But then, he recalled, he "hit a wall" and couldn't seem to drop any more weight.
Undaunted, Luke did what any 21st-century inhabitant would do when confronted with questions he couldn't answer: He hit the Internet, where he discovered Dr. Matthew Pinto, a South Jersey osteopath who, Luke decided, held the key to his future. Pinto was a proponent of a highly regarded meal-replacement weight-loss system. Intrigued, he made an appointment with the doctor.
There's no doubt in Pinto's mind that Luke was cruising the outskirts of serious health problems when the two men first got together on April 21 last year. "When I met Tony, he weighed 325 pounds," Pinto remembered. "His BMI [body mass index, which determines obesity] was 48. Twenty to 25 is normal. Twenty-five to 30 is obese. Over 40 is morbidly obese."
Pinto's first step was to have his new patient forgo all other food in favor of a six-week regimen of nothing but his prescribed shakes and bars. If Luke was concerned that his doctor was just trying to make a buck, he was quickly set straight. As it turned out, Pinto's goal was to get Luke back to actual food as soon as possible.
"What I realized is you get discouraged too quickly," said Luke. "[What Pinto's] diet does is give you a jump-start to get you mentally ready" to alter a person's eating habits permanently.
Pinto was the first of three people who would ultimately keep Luke on the right track. The second was a friend of his, a personal trainer named Eleni Yiambilis.
"She - for free - would drive an hour-and-a-half to come to my condo to work out with me," said Luke. "Between that and the meals, I started to lose . . . 10 pounds, 20 pounds . . . "
But soon enough, Luke crashed into another wall when again, his efforts ceased resulting in weight loss.
"I was disgusted," he recalled, harking back to one fateful day. "I'll never forget this: I said to her, 'I'm done.' She said, 'No, we're not done yet. We still have more stuff [to do] for the day.' I said, 'No, you don't understand, I'm done. I'm fat and that's it, and that's the way it's gonna be!' "
Yiambilis "started to cry and she said to me, 'I drive an hour-and-a-half here because I love you and I care about you and I wanna save your life. And you're just gonna quit?'
"I said, 'Yeah. I am who I am, and I'm done.' So she left.
"About an hour later, she calls me up and she's crying . . . and she says to me, 'I'm not giving up on you. I'm comin' over every day and I'll sit outside your condo door for an hour. And if you don't come out, I'll come back the next day and the next day until you come out and you save your own life.'
"And that was what I needed. I've never looked back."
From there Luke wound up losing more than 40 pounds in six weeks. Just as he weaned himself off Pinto's shakes and bars, Luke ultimately decided he didn't need his Eleni to get him to the gym at his riverside condo complex. But there was one more person he did need to help him realize his ultimate goal of not only being physically fit and healthy, but buff and ripped as well.
Despite lifting weights as part of his exercise routine, Luke believed he wasn't as muscular as he wanted to be. Enter trainer Ryan Leisinger.
According to Luke, it was Leisinger who put the finishing touches on what he prefers to call his "lifestyle change." Leisinger, he offered, diagnosed Luke's problem, pointing out that he was "overtraining" and that he needed more cardio work and less weight training.
Luke, who a year ago had a 50-inch waist, now has one that measures 38. His goal is to get to somewhere between 34 and 36 inches. His target weight is 215.
To make that a reality, he works out two hours a day, Monday through Friday. His morning routine is accomplished before he eats anything (although he does have a protein-rich snack just before his 11 p.m. bedtime). On most days, his time (30 to 40 minutes) on the elliptical machine is so intense, he easily burns 800 or 900 calories a session.
Instead of two or three meals a day plus snacks (in the past, he would regularly inhale multiple cheesesteaks at one sitting), Luke has five or six small-portion meals a day. He consumes copious amounts of protein (fish, chicken, red meat and egg whites) and makes sure to have four daily helpings of vegetables. At Franco & Luigi's his dinner was a piece of unadorned broiled salmon and a selection of fresh grilled veggies.
However, Luke claimed the key to staying on such a rigid diet is that he allows himself the occasional indulgence. "Do I make healthier choices? Yeah," he said. "Do I deprive myself of the foods I love, like pizzas and cheesesteaks? No. I just don't sit down and eat two cheesesteaks or five pieces of pizza like I used to."
To prove his point, Luke - whose sleep apnea is "gone," and whose blood pressure is fine - didn't totally ignore the sinfully rich small pasta pillows in a cream sauce the waitress brought to our table. He sampled one, along with a single bite of a hot-from-the-oven roll.
"I satisfied my craving," he said. "I am a huge believer in not depriving yourself of what you want, a huge believer. [Self-deprivation] is one of the main reasons people break diets and feel guilty."
Luke's physical transformation has not been achieved in secret. His Twitter followers and Facebook friends are provided updates on his progress almost daily. That has had an unintended consequence that has made Luke especially proud.
"I can't believe how many people I've inspired," he said, making no attempt to hide his pleasure. "I get emails, tweets: 'Tony you got me started. I'm down 20 pounds, I'm down 30 pounds. Any time I don't wanna get out of the chair, I look at your tweet; you're at the gym, you're doing cardio and I get up and do it.' "That's the one thing that makes me feel real good."
Luke's dramatic transformation has brought him great satisfaction and joy. But, he confided, it's nothing compared with the happiness he's found with Alexis Aronson, his younger-by-24-years publicist girlfriend (she owns the ALAPR agency).
"Maybe," he said with a big smile, "you don't see the glow of health, but the glow of love."