Tony Luke Says Lawsuits “Destroyed” His Cheesesteaks Family

What was once a thriving family business has turned into a behind-the-scenes nightmare between the popular face of the restaurants and his father and brother.

Bitter Battle: Tony Luke Jr. (left, photo by Franco Sicilia) and his father, Tony Luke Sr. (photo via federal court exhibit).

Bitter Battle: Tony Luke Jr. (left, photo by Franco Sicilia) and his father, Tony Luke Sr. (photo via federal court exhibit).

Tony Luke Jr. and his father might be smiling in these photos, but the truth is that no one is smiling behind the scenes, where the family that brought Philadelphia one of its most popular cheesesteak brands is locked in a sad and contentious battle that is about to play itself out in court.

When you think of Tony Luke’s, you probably picture Tony Jr. Thanks to countless appearances on local TV as well as stints on Spike TV, the Food Network and on the big screen (in heavier days, he was the gigantic green cape-clad guy in the 2006 Disney movie Invincible), Luke, born Anthony Lucidonio Jr., has become the face of the Tony Luke’s brand. He’s a local celebrity, and according to Luke, that status is what’s behind the turmoil that has ripped this once tight-knit family apart.

But before we delve further into the drama, a quick history lesson.

The Lucidonio family opened the original Tony Luke’s on Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia back in 1992. Over time, Tony Jr.’s emphasis became marketing and publicity, while his father and brother “Nicky” were more hands-on in the day-to-day operation of the shop. If you went down to grab a sandwich, you were much more likely to see Nicky behind the window.

Then in 2007, Tony Jr. saw the franchise potential of the Tony Luke’s brand and brought in South Jersey entrepreneur Ray Rastelli, co-founder of Rastelli Foods Group, a food management and distribution company with annual sales in the hundreds of millions.

According to a deal that was struck, Rastelli and Tony Jr. would develop the franchise business under a new company called TR Worldwide. Tony Sr. would get a cut of that company’s net profits, while Tony Sr. and Nicky would keep the original shop as well as a shop in Wildwood, New Jersey largely for themselves, with Tony Jr. having a 5 percent stake in that company, Tony Luke’s Inc.

But nearly a decade and more than 20 franchise locations later, Tony Jr. is persona non grata inside the Oregon Avenue shop. Even his image was apparently unwelcome, as all of the photos and posters bearing his face were ripped down late last year.

A lawsuit filed by TR Worldwide in federal court earlier this week claims that the relationship between Tony Jr. and his father and brother has dissolved because they became “jealous and enraged” by Tony Jr.’s fame.

The lawsuit argues that as Tony Jr.’s celebrity status grew, Tony Sr. and Nicky “secretly began to resent their son and brother and his public success,” and so they “secretly decided to create their own hybrid brand under the name ‘Papa Luke’s’ and compete with [TR Worldwide.]”

According to prominent Center City attorney Paul Rosen, who is representing Tony Jr., the jealously and resentment first came to light in 2014, when a customer came into the Oregon Avenue shop asking for “Tony Luke,” because he wanted a picture with him. “The father came out and said, ‘I’m Tony Luke,'” claims Rosen. “And the guy says, ‘No you’re not.’ And the father went ballistic, and from that point he decided that he was going to try to compete with his son.”

The name of the Oregon Avenue location was changed and advertised as “Papa Luke’s at the Original Front and Oregon Location” as early as October of last year, and Nicky has made comments on social media disparaging the Tony Luke’s franchises, the lawsuit alleges. Tony Jr.’s lawyers say that the actions of Tony Sr. and Nicky have violated the non-compete agreement that they signed with TR Worldwide.

Except that Nicky and Tony Sr. are now claiming that they were duped into signing that non-compete. In their own lawsuit that they filed Friday against TR Worldwide, Tony Jr.’s father and brother allege that they didn’t realize that the agreement contained a non-compete clause. How is this possible? By their own admission, they never read the paperwork before signing it. (TR Worldwide’s lawsuit maintains that the father and son previously claimed that their signatures were forgeries.)

Tony Sr. also claims that he is owed money from TR Worldwide, but TR Worldwide states in its lawsuit that Rastelli has invested more than $4.5 million of his own money in the brand and that the company has yet to turn a profit. And until it does, nobody’s getting a cent.

“The second Tony Jr. puts a dollar in his pocket, he will give Tony Sr. 15 percent,” says Rosen. “When we get the money, you get the money.” Rosen adds that he thought that the dispute had been settled privately at the end of 2015, but then Tony Sr. and Nicky filed their suit, the first legal blow in this battle.

“Clearly, they’re having some issues between them,” says Steven Angstreich, attorney for Tony Sr. and Nicky. “And this will be dealt with in litigation.”

After a remarkable weight loss, Tony Jr. says that he’s put on 30 pounds in the past few months thanks to the strife between him and his father and brother. He says he feels out of control of the situation, especially since Rastelli is managing partner of TR Worldwide and the one to make the big decisions.

“I just wish my father would comply with the agreement,” laments Tony Jr. “This whole thing has destroyed my family. I am absolutely heartbroken over this. I feel like my guts have been ripped out.”

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