Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

A Pittsburgher's Determination Gave Us the Big Mac

Our dining critic recounts the story of the iconic burger's invention in Pittsburgh a half-century ago.

photo provided by McDonald's


Pittsburgh is home to a host of iconic food brands and products: Heinz ketchup, the Clark Bar, the Klondike bar, the Primanti Bros. sandwich.

Here’s a bite of information that perhaps is less widely known: The Big Mac, arguably the most popular hamburger of all time, also was created in Pittsburgh.

You likely know what’s in a Big Mac thanks to an earworm jingle that first aired in 1974: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun. Pittsburgher Michael James Delligatti, better known as Jim, settled upon that combination in 1967 after toying with various builds at his Ross Township McDonald’s franchise location. He then introduced the hamburger at his Uniontown restaurant, and in 1968 the corporation launched the Big Mac nationwide.

It was an epic success, so popular over its 50-year-history that The Economist magazine even launched a “Big Mac” index in 1986 “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”

photos by hal b. klein

Delligatti’s interest in fast-food restaurants began shortly after World War II. The Pittsburgh native lived for several years in southern California and worked at fast-service carhop hamburger joints. He fell in love with the idea of serving quickly prepared food paired with efficient service at an economic price-point. When Delligatti returned to Pittsburgh, he opened a drive-in restaurant on McKnight Road. He met McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago in 1955, and, figuring that he could save money on paper goods, purchased the rights to become the master franchise for western Pennsylvania. Delligatti at one point owned nearly 50 McDonald’s locations in the region but sold the bulk of them back to national in the 1980s.

Although McDonald’s insisted on standardization of product, Delligatti’s creative impulses got the best of him in 1965 when he lobbied the company for a bigger burger. “McDonald’s wouldn’t let him do it, but he kept after it and he kept experimenting. In 1967, they let him try it,” says his son, Mike Delligatti, who now operates 20 McDonald’s franchises in western Pa.

Corporate headquarters wanted Delligatti to use ingredients that already were in the restaurant, but he knew he’d need to augment the bun or the sandwich would be too sloppy to eat. “So he went to the bun company and asked for a double-cut, sesame bun so it would be stable,” says Mike Delligatti.

Could Jim Delligatti, who died at age 98 in 2016, have invented the Big Mac today? “It would tough. They do have a food improvement team, and the franchisees are involved in that, but McDonald’s is almost like the government — it’s so big. They have chefs and the whole thing,” Mike Delligatti says.

It’s a good thing he acted when he did.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the nation-wide release of the Big Mac, McDonald’s is releasing more than 6.2 million “MacCoins” in 60 of the 100 countries where the hamburger is served. Customers will receive a coin with the purchase of a Big Mac, and can redeem it for a free Big Mac on a subsequent visit. If you live in western Pa., you can also visit the Big Mac Museum, which opened at Mike Delligatti’s New Huntingdon McDonald’s location in August 2007. There, in addition to a 12-foot replica of the Big Mac, are displays of Big Mac history, a series of Big Mac boxes, Big Mac knick-knacks and a hand-painted Delligatti family tree.

I ate a Big Mac today, surrounded by that half-century of memorabilia. It was tasty in a way that brought back fond childhood memories of when a trip to McDonald’s was a special treat — though if I'm asked for a recommendation for a place to get a burger, I still would prefer to visit one of the selections from our list of the Best Hamburgers in Pittsburgh.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Aquatic Playpen is Coming to the Shores of the Ohio River

The planned 2-acre lagoon along the Ohio riverfront will feature turquoise waters in the summer and be transformed into an ice rink in the winter.

These Couples Have Officially Won the Game of Love

There is no formula for finding love, but for these couples, there is one common factor: sports.

Beehive is Soon to Buzz No More in the 'Burgh

The South Side coffee shop home to Pittsburgh artists for almost 30 years is closing – but the legacy of its longtime resident coffee drinkers and thinkers lives on.

The Glow Promises to Get You in the Spooky Spirit

Featuring 5,000 Jack o'Lanterns, The Glow offers a way for all ages to get into the Halloween spirit without scaring you half to death.

Duolingo Co-Founder to Receive Major MIT Prize

The language-learning app is no stranger to the Pittsburgh news, but the business is making headlines once again thanks to an accomplishment by one of its creators.

Tom Hanks Will Be in Pittsburgh to Make Sure You Vote

Tom Hanks to speak at Pittsburgh’s Week of Action event, encouraging citizens to register to vote in the upcoming midterm elections.

Chiefs are a Better Barometer for Steelers than Browns

There is evidence to suggest Pittsburgh can be better against Kansas City.

Kate Romane and Mike Rado Return to Lawrenceville

The forthcoming TRYP Hotel is working with two prominent Pittsburgh chefs for its food and beverage program.

Lorelei Brings Outstanding Cocktails and Beer to Beloved Building

The owners of Hidden Harbor and Independent Brewing Company go alpine for their first East Liberty location.

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh (If You are a Coach for the Steelers)

After the past few years, we need to issue some guidelines for Steelers coaches out on the town.

A League of Their Own: 5 Buzzworthy Interior Designers

With an artistic bent and an eye for details, these MVPs of the residential interior designer scene are transforming Pittsburgh.

The 400-Word Review: The Predator

The latest visit to the action franchise is a noble try, but ultimately a bit of a mess.

A Tale of Two Kitchens

The Youngs and the Deatons both knew they wanted to overhaul their neighboring 1930s-era stone homes in Mt. Lebanon, but their contrasting tastes resulted in two distinct design styles.

PPG Goes Dark Again for Its Color of the Year

As the 2019 Color of the Year, PPG Paints chose Night Watch, a luxurious dark green. Here’s how to incorporate it into your home.

This Old Pittsburgh House: Concert on Amberson Avenue

The brown brick, Queen Anne-style home in Shadyside is as rich in history as it is in music.