Sami Ladeki

World travels inspire creator of Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza

It was 1968 and like so many young men at that time Ladeki was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Unwilling to give up his U.S. visa and return to Lebanon, Ladeki spent two years working in an Army mess hall. “It was scary,” Ladeki says. “Looking back now, it was the best experience I’ve had in my life.”

In the 1980s America was on a running craze, and carbohydrates dominated the dinner table. At least that’s what Sami Ladeki, the owner and creator of Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, says when describing how he got the idea to open a pizza restaurant. The Lebanese-born Ladeki knows that things have changed, and he has given his menu a healthier, more balanced slant. The pizza, though, can trace its roots to the country’s obsession with running.

Seven things Sami can’t live without

  • Wine. Jesus drank wine, so it’s good enough for me. It’s good for the heart and good for the soul.
  • Music. Jazz, soul … I like European influences as well, Italian, Spanish, French. It’s all great as long as the rhythm and soul are there.
  • Great, healthy food. “Eat Well. Feel Good” is the Sammy’s tagline, because this is my motto. I’ve always followed a Mediterranean diet, and we try to impress these principles at our restaurants as much as our guests will allow us.
  • The Caribbean sea and sunshine. One of my favorite places on the globe. Beauty, warmth, cleanliness, clarity of the water. It clears my mind from the hectic business pace and relaxes me.
  • Southern France. The excitement here rejuvenates me. I travel here as often as I can; utter sophistication, elegance and history. The region is so well preserved, and the people are unlike any other.
  • Chocolate. I’m addicted; who isn’t? I practically shoot it into my veins.
  • Giorgio Armani. Everything Mr. Armani represents—class, style, polish—is admirable. I buy his clothing because it fits. No alterations are ever needed. Absolute precision in everything he does.

Ladeki’s path to pizza took him to almost every continent and countless cities before settling in Las Vegas and San Diego. He left Lebanon at the age of 20 to study hotel and restaurant management in Germany, and it was soon after graduation while he was working in London where his path diverted to the United States. Ladeki soon found himself working at Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans. “I was like a kid in Disneyland,” Ladeki says.

It was 1968 and like so many young men at that time Ladeki was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Unwilling to give up his U.S. visa and return to Lebanon, Ladeki spent two years working in an Army mess hall. “It was scary,” Ladeki says. “Looking back now, it was the best experience I’ve had in my life.”

Back safely in the civilian world, Ladeki moved around the country, managing restaurants and nightclubs and even taking a stint as the food and beverage manager at Caesars Palace. It was on a trip to California to visit his brother in 1989 that Ladeki finalized the idea to open his own restaurant. It was his favorite, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, that served as an inspiration for Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, and he turned to Puck’s former pizza guru Ed LaDou to consult on the menu.

Twenty one years and 17 restaurants later, Ladeki still handpicks each item on the menu, and aims to keep ingredients fresh and healthy. “I lead a healthy life and eat healthy food and I try to give my customers the same thing,” Ladeki says. He steers clear of heavy mayonnaise-based dressings for salads and tries to cut trans fat and excess oils from pizza ingredients. “The country is going that way, and we have to go with the flow.”

This flow had led to a menu filled with a lot more variety than just pizza. Ladeki has added a small-bites menu, a plethora of salads and tacos and mini burgers to Sammy’s repertoire. “I like pedestrian food,” he says. “As long as you give people good-quality food with good value, they will eat it.”

Ladeki keeps the menu evolving with new dishes inspired by his colorful background and constant travel. Food, he said, is like fashion—people’s tastes are always changing.

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