Though his name was not widely known, Jim Delligatti influenced American eating habits and culture in ways few have. Delligatti, who died Nov. 28 at 98, invented the Big Mac, still the signature item on McDonald’s menu and the bestselling sandwich of all time.
Southwestern Pennsylvania should take pride in claiming Delligatti as a native son who embodied some of the nation’s best values: ingenuity, hard work and self-reliance.
He was part of what Tom Brokaw dubbed the “Greatest Generation,” serving the nation in World War II and then rolling up his sleeves to see how far he could get in life. After the war, he traveled the country, holding various jobs, before returning to the Pittsburgh area to open his own drive-in, with business partner John Sweeney, in 1953. He traveled to a 1955 restaurant convention in Chicago, attended by McDonald’s executive Ray Kroc, and Delligatti quickly became a franchisee.
Not content with McDonald’s menu, he invented the Big Mac even though the chain initially rebuffed his efforts and he had to hunt down a sesame-seed bun with enough brawn to contain the two all-beef patties, special sauce and extras he packed into the 550-calorie sandwich. It first sold in 1967 in his Uniontown restaurant, one of nearly 50 he came to own. The Big Mac was a smash hit, establishing Delligatti as one of the most important ingredients in McDonald’s success.
Surprisingly, Delligatti told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1997 that he received no royalties from the sandwich that helped put the gold in McDonald’s arches. He received no big pay raise, either. “All I got was a plaque,” said Delligatti, who also developed the McDonald’s breakfast.
The Big Mac today is criticized for contributing to the nation’s obesity epidemic and couch-potato culture. Yet the Big Mac was a product of its time, and Delligatti did what inventors and entrepreneurs naturally do. He filled a niche, brilliantly.
While single-handedly changing American business and culture, Delligatti brought contentment to many a belly. He more than earned that plaque.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE