Late to the Game: Deep Dishin’ on Ike


Ike Sewell never made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, the All-American guard at Texas in the mid-20s never played a down in the NFL. Sewell, the founder of Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno and thus the founder of deep-dish pizza as we know it, is, however, a member of an even more elusive club—the Pizza Hall of Fame.

How this lineman from the tiny East Texas town of Wills Point—named the Bluebird Capital of Texas by then-Texas governor George W. Bush in 1995—ended up as the godfather of the heavy slice is almost a tall tale.

First things first. As a native of the East Coast, I consider deep-dish pizza an abomination of the first order, and I wonder how one can even consider it among the same species as what comes out of the oven at Totonno’s or Lombardi’s or even Pizza Hut, all three members of the Hall as well. But this mutant casserole, artery-clogging and barely pizza-adjacent as it is, is—somehow—beloved. By many! End rant.

After a stellar career at Texas, Sewell joined American Airlines. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he got into the liquor business, joining the Fleischmann Distilling Corporation as a Midwest salesman. Missing Texas but located squarely in the middle of the country, Sewell dreamed of opening a Mexican restaurant in Chicago. He had plans to do so, and, along with his partner Ric Riccardo (Lucy!), they set out into the restaurant business.

Here’s where actual history and apocrypha meet. Sewell and Riccardo eventually opened Pizzeria Uno on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, within spitting distance of the western shores of Lake Michigan. How the established restaurateur from New Orleans (his Italian restaurant, Riccardo’s, had been a Chicago staple since 1935) and the neophyte Texan came to settle on thick-as-a-brick pizza as their cuisine is debatable.

One story has a friend of Sewell’s returning from World War II, where he was stationed in Italy. While he was abroad, he came across an h’ors d’ourve called “pizza” (can we bring pizza back as an appetizer, by the way?) and sang its graces to the Longhorn, who then turned it into a full meal for his patrons. Another story is that Sewell and Riccardo were testing enchilada recipes, after which the latter got a bad case of food poisoning, turning him off the the idea entirely. Some articles from the era simply note that the duo decided that Mexican food wouldn’t exactly play to a midwestern crowd, and that pizza was an easier sell. Nonetheless, on June 17, 1943, Chicagoans were first treated to the midcentury version of the cronut, a gimmicky, fast-selling, insanely unhealthy and supposedly delicious heap of carbs and fat.

Though world-famous now, deep-dish pizza did not fly out of the ovens at Pizzeria Uno, at least not initially. Sewell said that they gave out free slices during the early days in an attempt to get people in the doors and familiarize the uninitiated. In those days, even normal-person pizza was a rarity, served solely in the Italian neighborhoods of big cities, and it hadn’t been served as a full meal in Chicago until Sewell and Riccardo made it so.

“Fortunately,” Sewell said of that time, “we had a very good bar business.”

By the winter of 1943, Sewell and Riccardo also had a very good pizza business. By then, Uno was standing-room only, the Chicago deep-dish pizza now a coveted delicacy that unfortunately was at the height of its popularity before Buzzfeed could teach us how to make a “bomb AF” version at home.

During this time, Sewell remained a regional vice president at Fleischmann’s, so he eventually put a man named Rudy Malnati and his son Lou in charge of the day-to-day operations. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Lou eventually split off and started his own pizza place in a Chicago suburb called Lincolnwood in 1971. Lou Malnati’s is now one of the most famous deep-dish pizza chains, with 46 locations nationwide.

In 1955, with Uno already a Chicagoland sensation, Sewell opened a second location a block away, appropriately called Pizzeria Due, that was equally as successful. Eight years later, the now burgeoning restaurant tycoon Sewell finally realized his dream of opening a Mexican restaurant. Su Casa opened in 1963, the first ever Mexican joint in uptown Chicago, again bringing meat, cheese, and bread to a city that didn’t know it needed it. It is unconfirmed if Riccardo ever ate Mexican food again.

By 1979, Sewell had been listening to requests to franchise Pizzeria Uno for years. He finally relented, and Ike Sewell’s Original Chicago Pizzeria Uno opened nationwide. As of 2014, there were 140 locations worldwide, including Uno’s—as they are now called—as far flung as Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

In 1987, Sewell was honored with the Distinguished American Award by the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame. At the awards ceremony, he thanked Clyde Littlefield, his football coach in the mid-20s (different sources have Sewell on the team from 1926-1929 and 1925, 1927, and 1928), who he says helped him in both football and in business, two things that he says were intertwined in his life to that point.

“I have always thought that business and football have a lot to do with each other,” Sewell said. It turns out the man who invented deep-dish pizza was also on the first Texas team to wear true burnt orange. A real trailblazer, this one.

Sewell died in 1990, at which time his widow sold Uno, Due, and Su Casa. Menu changes and expansions were undertaken at every Uno restaurant except the original three in Chicago, which remain as Sewell’s sole, though incredibly deep (sorry), footprint in the city.

Just before Sewell’s death, it was reported that between Uno and Due, he had sold upwards of 15 million deep-dish pizzas in his lifetime. Hey, 15,000,000 deep-dish pizza fans can’t be wrong, right?


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