SBJ/February 6-12, 2017/Champions

Sports sits next to food, wine at the heart of Levy

Larry Levy’s interests cover the bases when it comes to the events in which his company feeds fans at arenas and stadiums: Food, wine, sports and rock music, “which is what happens in all these buildings,” he says.

Early on, his life revolved around sports. Growing up in St. Louis as a Cardinals baseball fan, Levy fell asleep to Harry Caray calling the team’s games, broadcast on KMOX-AM through a small radio perched on a wall in his bedroom.

Caray went on to broadcast games for the Chicago White Sox and Cubs, representing two of Levy Restaurants’ first sports accounts. As a result, the Hall of Fame announcer essentially became “the soundtrack to my life,” Levy said.

Former MLB pitcher Ken Holtzman was Levy’s teammate in Little League, throwing 26 no-hitters one season when they were kids, according to Levy. As they got older, Levy got to hit against Holtzman after they went to different high schools.

“He was a left-handed pitcher and I was a left-handed hitter,” Levy said. “I bailed at the plate. It was embarrassing.

“My [senior] year in college [at Northwestern], he was pitching for the Cubs. I started going to the games, taking the L [train] down to Wrigley, and became a Cubs fan. I’ve had this ‘horrible disease’ ever since.”

Levy also played football and basketball. He was a two-year starter in football at Ladue High School, where his brother Mark was the quarterback and Larry a wide receiver. Ladue lost only five games during Levy’s four years there.

Levy (No. 14) walked on to the 1962-63 Northwestern University basketball team, though his hoops claim to fame was as a courtside fan in the background of a 1993 Sports Illustrated cover featuring Michael Jordan.
Photo: COURTESY OF LARRY LEVY


After graduating from high school, Levy attended Northwestern in suburban Chicago, playing one year on the basketball team as a walk-on guard. Levy’s hoops career ended after the 1962-63 season, his freshman year in college. The Wildcats went 9-15 that season under coach Bill Rohr.

“I played some minutes, but it was Big Ten basketball,” he said. “I did well, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional basketball player.”

His passion for the sport never waned. He’s attended nine consecutive NCAA Final Fours with his youngest son, Ari. In Chicago, Larry remains a fixture at Bulls games, having held six courtside seats since the 1985-86 season, Michael Jordan’s second year in the NBA.

All told, Levy saw Jordan play close to 500 games at Chicago Stadium and the United Center. Sitting courtside, Levy often found himself in the middle of the action. During one game, Bulls guard Ron Harper broke Levy’s glasses while chasing a loose ball.

Levy’s defining moment courtside came during the 1992-93 season, when the Bulls won their third NBA title. Sports Illustrated’s June 7, 1993, cover shows Levy sitting in the background while a tongue-wagging Jordan drives past New York Knick Anthony Mason in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“I’m the dude with the great mustache,” Levy said. “I got lots of notes from friends saying the same thing — ‘Who’s the guy on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Larry Levy?’”

As a Cubs fan, Levy has attended most of the team’s playoff games during the past 35 years, including their 2016 World Series run. Unfortunately, he missed out on the White Sox winning the 2005 World Series, an event tied to a footnote in the history of Levy Restaurants.

It was White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf who convinced Larry and Mark Levy to run the 34 new suites at the old Comiskey Park, two years after Reinsdorf bought the team in 1981. As part of his pitch, Reinsdorf told the Levy brothers: “I’m the new owner of the team. We’re going to pay a lot of money to get the best players to come here, and when we go to the World Series, you’re going to sit in the first row,” Larry remembers. “We said, ‘OK.’”

The White Sox’s “Winning Ugly” club came close in 1983, losing to Baltimore in the ALCS. Twenty-two years later, the White Sox captured the Fall Classic, but Larry was nowhere near the Windy City. At the time, he and his wife Carol were climbing a section of the Andes mountains in Peru.

“We were hiking in Machu Picchu instead of being in Chicago, never expecting a Chicago team to be in the World Series,” Levy said. “But Carol and I followed the series from there wearing Sox hats.”

Levy, now 72, maintains a rigorous exercise routine near his winter home in South Florida. As a vacation home owner in Aspen, Colo., he became an avid skier but gave it up three years ago, in part, to avoid potential injury.

“I never learned to ski slow, so I stopped after a long dedication to getting good,” Levy said.

Jeff Wineman knows all about Levy’s competitive nature on the slopes. Wineman, an executive vice president for Levy Restaurants who’s been with the company for almost 30 years, skied with Levy many times over the course of their 20 trips to Colorado.

“I’m 20 years younger than Larry, and there was not one time where I beat him down the mountain,” Wineman said. “That doesn’t mean he was safe, but it’s true.”

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