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RigaTony's owner motivated by family to beat cancer

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Posted at 9:21 PM, Jul 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 12:47:56-04

TEMPE — Outside of ciabatta and olive oil, his mother’s meatball recipe and all the famous faces you see on the wall, Michael Lopercio says the secret for a successful Italian restaurant is simple — treat everyone who walks through the door like they’re part of your family.

“My business is my family, everybody says that but we truly are a family restaurant,” said Lopercio.

Sometimes, that means adjusting to challenges.

During the pandemic, Lopercio added windows and doors near the front entrance so staff could better access customers driving through.

He said the changes he made helped them sell 60% of what they would have if dine-in was an option at the time.

Most recently, Lopercio added an 'inflation buster' meal to the menu. For one night a week, four people can enjoy high-end Italian cuisine for $20.

When asked if the 'inflation buster' meal is making any money, the 69-year-old paused and said, “No probably not,” adding that they’re breaking even at best.

As much as we all want life’s trajectory to move in a constant upward direction, it’s rare for that to happen. Lopercio always chased success despite obstacles in his way.

After grade school, Michael was given a scholarship to go to any college he wanted to in New York, but he decided to chase after a girl from Arizona State University who was on summer break.

That relationship didn’t last but his passion to persevere did.

He started as a dishwasher and held every job one can have at a restaurant before he became an owner.

He says regular customers still come up to him and ask him why Chops Steakhouse in Chandler closed, one of five restaurants he’s owned in the Valley over the years. He says making a profit at a steakhouse isn’t an easy task.

So in 1994, Lopercio sought to recreate a Little Italy feel in the Valley and opened RigaTony’s on Warner Road and McClintock Drive. The business is nearing 30 years of serving authentic Italian food in Tempe.

“I’m living the dream,” he said.

The ‘never-give-up-no-matter-what' attitude played a large part when Lopercio was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer, one of the leading causes of death for men in the United States.

“Don’t ever believe it when someone tells you prostate cancer isn’t a big deal,” he said.

Three separate doctors gave him the same grim diagnosis — three years to live.

“It took my breath away. I was really down in the dumps for about a week and then I decided I want to fight,” he said.

That cancer diagnosis was seven years ago.

His main motivation to keep living fight cancer is framed on the wall, right when you walk into his restaurant, next to Frank Sinatra, Al Capone and Sylvester Stallone.

“These are famous Italian people to me, these are my grandkids,” he said as he counted all eight of them.

On July 10, Lopercio will turn 70 years old. He hopes to be as old as his grandmother who lived to be over 100 years old.

When asked his secret to longevity, Lopercio jokingly said, “Lots and lots of garlic is what I think.”

The legacy he hopes to leave his beloved grandchildren is ultimately the recipe he’s used to beat cancer and run a successful restaurant.

“Don’t give up, there’s always a way out, there’s always an option for success, you just got to look for it and keep pushing. If they take that from me, that would be a dream,” he said.