Mike Ilitch is a proven leader in the restaurant, sports and entertainment industries. Along with his wife Marian, he grew one Little Caesars pizza restaurant into the world’s largest pizza carry-out chain, with restaurants in all 50 states and 19 international markets. In 1959, the first Little Caesars restaurant opened in Garden City, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. The success of that restaurant and those that followed was built upon the exceptional quality and value of the Little Caesars menu and Ilitch’s marketing savvy and imaginative ideas in production.
Ilitch is an avid sports fan, and in 1982, he and Marian purchased the struggling Detroit Red Wings professional hockey franchise and turned that team into a Stanley Cup champion. At the time of the purchase, the team was known as the “Dead Wings” and interest in hockey in Detroit was at an all-time low. After winning 16 divisional championships, six President’s Trophies (for the season best record among all NHL teams), six Campbell Bowls and four Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, Detroit is now passionately known as “Hockeytown” and is the envy of all cities where hockey is played. The Red Wings are consistently ranked among the most valuable franchises in the NHL and the percent of capacity at its Joe Louis Arena is among the highest of all NHL teams.
Also in 1982, Ilitch purchased Olympia Entertainment which manages several restaurants, sports and entertainment venues, and properties and has become a successful business venture. Hockeytown Café, which opened in 1999 and is managed by Olympia Entertainment, is recognized as one of the top sports bars in the country.
Five years later, in 1987, the Ilitches purchased the neglected Fox Theatre and began to restore it to its original 1928 splendor. Many thought it was impossible to revive a business in downtown Detroit, but since the theatre’s re-opening in 1988, it is consistently rated as one of the top grossing theatres of its size by Pollstar Magazine.
The purchase and subsequent renovation of the adjacent Fox Office Centre afforded the Ilitches the opportunity to move their suburban staff into the renovated structure in 1989 and establish a new headquarters in downtown Detroit. Currently, the headquarters campus is being expanded with an addition of a new nine-story, 234,000 square foot, Little Caesars Global Resource Center next door to the Fox Theatre.
When Ilitch purchased the Detroit Tigers in 1992, it was for him the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. His link to the Tigers dates back to his youth when he was scouted by the Tigers while playing baseball at Detroit Cooley High School. After serving four years in the U.S. Marines, Ilitch signed with the Tigers and played in their farm system for three years until a knee injury ended his hopes of making it to the big leagues. Along with the purchase of the Tigers, Ilitch needed to address the issue of building a new stadium to replace the outdated ballpark where the team had played since 1912. The new Comerica Park opened in 2000 with the majority of funding supplied by Ilitch.
Since the presence of the Ilitch companies in downtown Detroit, several other investors have since followed. Additional restored theatres and restaurants have opened and the Detroit Lions built football field (Ford Field) next to the Tigers’
Comerica Park in 2002. Olympia Development, established in 1996 by Ilitch to promote development in Detroit, played a significant role in bringing to fruition the side-by-side stadiums.
Today, Olympia Development is executing the vision of The District Detroit, a 50-block sports and entertainment district comprised of unique neighborhoods surrounding Detroit’s greatest sports and entertainment venues. The project, the most ambitious development effort in the organization’s history, is expected to deliver $2.1 billion in economic impact to the city, region and state.
As the Ilitch-owned businesses grew in number, size and complexity, Ilitch Holdings, Inc., was formed in 1999 to provide professional services to their primary business interests in the food, sports and entertainment industries. Included are: Little Caesar Enterprises, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Detroit Red Wings, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program and Champion Foods. Marian Ilitch owns MotorCity Casino Hotel.
Though successful beyond his wildest dreams, Ilitch has never lost sight of his own early struggles or the hardships of others. He is a deeply committed community leader. His most evident philanthropic effort is the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, established in 1985. This restaurant on wheels has traveled the country to feed the hungry and assist with food provisions during national disasters. The program has been recognized by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and has served more than 2 million individuals in the United States and Canada.
Inspired by the story of a veteran returning to civilian life after losing both of his legs in war, Ilitch founded the Little Caesars Veterans Program in 2006 to provide honorably discharged veterans with a business opportunity when they transition from service or seek a career change. Mike received the Secretary’s Award from the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs for this program in 2007; it is the highest honor given to a civilian by the department.
The Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Program, established by Ilitch in 1968, has provided opportunities for tens of thousands of youngsters over the years. It has it paved the way for a number of extremely talented players to make it to the NHL and other professional hockey leagues or receive college hockey scholarships, while at the same time it helped the players develop character on and off the ice.
Additionally, Ilitch Charities for Children was founded in 2000 as a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving the lives of children in the areas of health, education and recreation. In 2008, the charity was renamed Ilitch Charities and its focus was broadened. The new charity invests in the community’s future by supporting innovative, collaborative and measurable programs that promote economic development and spur job growth, as a means to address social issues such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and hunger.
In 2015, Mike and Marian Ilitch gifted $40 million plus use of land to build the new Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business. The school, which will serve more than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students, will provide new flexible teaching, research, office and community spaces for students and faculty bringing WSU’s outstanding business programs closer to the market.
Ilitch has received a myriad of awards for community and humanitarian efforts as well as business and sports successes. He was inducted into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame (2003), the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2004) and the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame (2004). In 2008, Ilitch was rated the number one owner of all professional sports by Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, a highly respected industry research firm. As a first-generation American of Macedonian heritage, he was awarded the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1997, which pays tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic and recognizes individuals who are shining examples of the American Dream.