You may know the 49-year-old restaurateur for his eponymous chain that stretches from Philadelphia to Bahrain. You might recognize him as the cape-clad fan from the 2006 movie "Invincible." Maybe you even know him by his real name: Anthony Lucidonio Jr.
But no matter how you know Tony Luke, Jr., you've got a lot to learn.
Last Friday marked the 20th anniversary of his first South Philly cheesesteak and Italian sandwich shop opening, but there was no grand celebration. Not that Luke isn't fiercely proud of the accomplishment; it's just that he has so much on his plate. And that couldn't be more ironic considering the once larger-than-life personality has shed nearly half of his 365-pound frame in the past year.
Luke wasn't always overweight. He stayed in shape as a kid and was a determined boxer in his younger days. He didn't starting putting on the pounds until after he got married.
"You say you'll take it off, but after 60 or 70 pounds," he says, "in your mind, it becomes an insurmountable amount to lose."
After gaining twice that amount, Luke said he had a defeatist attitude and had pretty much given up. His weight caused him great public embarrassment, recalling a time when he couldn't get an airline tray down because his stomach was so big and his food spilled everywhere.
Still it wasn't enough to effect a change. His medical problems compounded. He had high blood pressure and sleep apnea. The gravity of the situation didn't hit Luke until one night when he tried to make his way to the bathroom.
"All I had to do was sit up. I couldn't do that. I literally had to rock my body to build up momentum to sit up in the bed," he admits. "When I finally did, I was sweating profusely and couldn't catch my breath."
That night, a glance in the mirror would finally make it all sink in. Luke couldn't believe that he'd let himself get to that point, and swore that it would all stop then. So last February, he began taking his life back.
"I get up in the morning and go to the gym," he says. "I do forty minutes of high-intensity weight training, then twenty minutes of cardio."
Luke finishes every day with between 45 minutes and an hour on the elliptical machine.
He's also had to change how he eats -- but not necessarily what he eats. Instead of a pound of salmon at dinner, now he eats four or five ounces. And yes, he still has the occasional cheesesteak.
"I taught myself that you can't deprive yourself," he says. "Diets don't work. We use a diet as a crutch in this country. People learn nothing, so when we stop the diets we go right back to where we were."
For Luke, his transformation is a total lifestyle change, and combined with the exercise routine, he has dropped a grand total of 128 pounds.
To help aid others who may be on similar journeys, Luke has added new menu items at his restaurants. All of the sandwiches are available in a junior version: six-inch instead of 10, and half the cheese and meat. They also have plans to offer a gluten-free wrap and a low-carb wrap.
But the full-size cheesesteaks and Italian sandwiches aren't going anywhere.
"I'm a big believer in choices," Luke says. "I think people need to take responsibility for their actions. No one put a gun to my head and made me eat three Big Macs."
Luke is quite outspoken on this point. He doesn't blame anyone but himself for getting so out of shape and wishes others would accept the consequences of their decisions. In fact, Luke doesn't sugarcoat anything, going as far as to quote Kurt Cobain: "I'd rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not."
His is a refreshing, albeit sometimes uncomfortable level of honesty. Luke admits having come to the realization that it's not just about him anymore. And every day when he walks into the gym he's motivated by all the people whose livelihoods depend on the Tony Luke's brand, and a desire to leave something great for his children.
Mere pounds from his goal weight, there is plenty to celebrate. The 20th anniversary of his first restaurant may have come and gone, but it's not forgotten. Tony Luke, Jr. has a vision of a concert, free food and prizes sometime this spring for all his loyal customers.
Just like his personal transformation -- better late than never.
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