Michael and Marian Ilitch opened a small pizza restaurant in suburban Detroit in 1959. Investing in the enterprise with their life savings, they also poured into it large amounts of time and patience. They created a simple and appealing menu that families, especially those with young children, could afford. A keen eye for detail and a hands-on management style helped them carve out a place for themselves in the restaurant business. The restaurant flourished and Little Caesars Pizza was born.
Today, Little Caesars is the top carry out pizza chain with restaurants worldwide. The success of the company has opened many doors for the Ilitches. However, the lifelong Detroiters have committed themselves to business ventures in their own back yard.
Their purchase of the Detroit Red Wings Hockey Club in 1982, and their subsequent purchase of Olympia Entertainment, Inc., the management company for Joe Louis and Cobo Arenas, reinforced their interest in the city of Detroit. Through the tireless efforts of the Ilitches, their family, and exceptional staff, they have transformed the once struggling Red Wings into a profitable and competitive enterprise. After winning 16 divisional championships, six President’s Trophies (for the season best record among all NHL teams), five Campbell Bowls and four Stanley Cups, Detroit is now passionately known as “Hockeytown” and is the envy of all cities where hockey is played. The Red Wings have played post-season hockey for 20 consecutive years – the most in all of current professional sports - and Financial World Magazine consistently ranks the Detroit hockey club as one of the most valuable franchises in the National Hockey League.
Buoyed by the challenges and successes of doing business in downtown Detroit, the Ilitches took a chance on the historic but neglected Fox Theatre when they purchased it in July 1987. They painstakingly restored the 5,000-seat theatre built in 1928 to its original splendor and reopened its doors in November 1988. Although many thought it was impossible to revive business in the theatre district, the Fox has been a great success and is consistently one of the top-grossing theatres of its size in the country. The Fox Theatre continues to attract record crowds for a mix of concerts, theatre, family shows, and restored classic films.
In addition, the Ilitches commissioned a dramatic renovation of the adjacent 10-story office building in 1989, relocated its suburban office staff, and established a world headquarters for their pizza company in the transformed office building.
Since then, the theatre district has seen a rebirth marked by the opening of other restored theatres and new restaurants, and the building of two side-by-side stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions. The Ilitches have expanded upon their success in the district with the opening of Hockeytown Cafe (1999) next to the Fox, which has been named one of the top sports bars in the country.
Hard work and good fortune came together for Mike Ilitch when he purchased the Detroit Tigers baseball team in August 1992. Ilitch, who once played for the team’s farm system, said the purchase was a dream come true. In 2006, the Tigers captured the American League pennant for the first time in 22 years, and in 2011 they won the Central Division championship.
In May 1996, Olympia Development, L.L.C., was created to focus on projects in downtown Detroit. One of the highlight projects the real estate and development company achieved further enhanced the city’s Urban Entertainment District. The $295 million Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers which opened on April 11, 2000 in downtown Detroit’s Theatre District, paved the way for the new Detroit Lions stadium, Ford Field, which opened in August 2002.
In 1999, Marian Ilitch invested in MotorCity Casino in Detroit, Michigan and became its sole owner in April 2005. In 2008, MotorCity completed a $300 million expansion project adding a new luxury hotel, spa, conference center, several restaurants, a 1,800 seat theatre, and permanent casino.
Because the Ilitches’ businesses have grown in size and complexity, Mike and Marian formed Ilitch Holdings, Inc. in 1999 to provide professional and technical services to the Ilitch-owned primary business interests, which include: Little Caesar Enterprises, Inc., Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Champion Foods, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Uptown Entertainment, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program, the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Tigers and MotorCity Casino Hotel. The 2011 total combined revenue of the Ilitch companies was $2.4 billion.
Though successful beyond their wildest dreams, the Ilitches never lost sight of their own early struggles and the hardships of others. They are deeply committed to the community. The 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, serving victims and volunteers assisting in the aftermath of wildfires, hurricanes, and floods. The program has been recognized by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and has served more than 2.5 million people in the United States and Canada.
In 2006, inspired by the story of a veteran returning to civilian life after losing both of his legs in war, Mike Ilitch founded the Little Caesars Veteran Program to provide honorably discharged veterans with a business opportunity when they transition from service or seek a career change. Ilitch 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 the Ilitches in 1968, has provided opportunities for tens of thousands of youngsters over the years. Not only has it paved the way for a number of extremely talented players to make it to the NHL and other professional hockey leagues, it has helped develop character on and off the ice for those who have participated in the program.
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.
Mike and Marian Ilitch have received a myriad of awards for their community and humanitarian efforts, as well as business and sports successes.