Story by Rick Hynum | Photos courtesy of Billy Zureikat
When Billy Zureikat was diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy in March 2021, his life took a sudden turn for the worse—and for the better. Getting about isn’t always easy for the Chicago native anymore, but his pizza, burger and sandwich creations have become runaway hits at restaurants all across the Windy City.
Oddly enough, Zureikat isn’t even in the restaurant business. He’s a self-taught home cook who, as it turns out, has a knack for culinary innovation. And Chicago restaurateurs like Derrick Tung, co-owner of Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, and Robert Garvey of Robert’s Pizza & Dough Co. are taking notice.
From Basketball to Baking
Zureikat, a former ESPN Radio producer and now a logistics manager for Landstar System, has always loved playing basketball. He was hitting the court three times a week with friends when he started getting clumsy—or so he thought. He kept tripping and falling for no apparent reason. Something was wrong, but he brushed it off.
“Flash-forward a few years later,” he says, “and my legs are getting worse and worse. I can’t physically run and jump anymore, so basketball wasn’t an option. I needed something more, so I started shifting my attention to cooking and, eventually, in 2016, to baking. I started teaching myself how to do basic doughs, sweets and desserts. Then, I started teaching myself how to make bread and sourdough.”
Seeking a little professional guidance, he reached out to Tung, who has been turning Chicagoans on to Detroit-style pizza since 2016. “I went to Paulie Gee’s when they first opened,” Zureikat recalls. “I was blown away by the service and the food. I messaged them on Instagram asking for advice, specifically for Detroit-style, just because it was something that was very accessible to a home cook. I didn’t need a crazy high-heat oven. I just needed a pan and could make it work.”
Tung was happy to help. “Derrick invited me in, gave me some tips and told me about the pans he had, and at that point he just became my pizza mentor,” Zureikat says. “I would make pizzas out of my apartment and post them on Instagram just for fun. I’d always bring them to Derrick to try, and he would give me his opinions. He basically became my guinea pig, and I would bring him slices and bagels and other things I cooked and baked. We became friends.”
One day in 2020, Zureikat went shopping at a local farmer’s market. “I joke that I black out when I go to a farmer’s market because I get so excited about all these crazy ingredients and fresh stuff,” he says. “I kind of nerd out about it. So I just blacked out and bought way too many shishito peppers—like, three or four pounds. I got home, and I was like, ‘What am I gonna do with these?’ So I started thinking of different ideas.”
And that’s how the Tripping Billy pizza was born.
Holy Shishito Peppers!
Zureikat based the Tripping Billy on a hearty Mexican dish called rajas con crema, made with poblano chile peppers, onions, cream and cheese. “So I took shallots and garlic and cooked them down with the shishito peppers,” Zureikat says. “I reduced some heavy cream into it. Then I added some Parmesan cheese and finished it with some nutmeg. The shishito peppers are roughly chopped, and the shallots and garlic are thinly sliced. It’s chunky, it’s coarse—I don’t blend it down. It’s this really flavorful sauce. It’s just different. I haven’t seen anything like it. So I had this sauce, and I’m like, all right, what do I do with it now?”
The answer: slather it on a pizza crust. Then he added some mozzarella and corn. “Very simple,” he says. “It was very good, but it was also very heavy. I bought some to Derrick, and he liked it.”
But Zureikat wasn’t finished yet. By the summer of 2021, he’d been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and was feeling low. Basketball was definitely a no-go now. But even if he couldn’t leap to pull down a rebound or sink a three-pointer, he could still make his way around the kitchen. Cooking was a new bright spot in his life.
He decided to give his pizza with the shishito pepper sauce another try, this time in the Detroit style instead of the grandma variety. “I thought crispy cheese on the edge would be really good with it,” he says. “I added cheddar cheese and pickled jalapenos to cut the richness from the cream and the cheese. And the biggest difference was, I added some scallions at the end for the garnish, and then I roasted some whole shishito peppers and put one on each slice. That was the final product. It was just mind-blowing. It was so good.”
Tung agreed. He liked it so much, he wanted to feature it in his 2021 Slice of Summer event, which benefited No Kids Hungry and Feeding America. “He was picking seven home pizza makers to make a pizza of their choice…and asked me to be one of them,” Zureikat says.
Before long, Zureikat, despite some frequent stumbling, was on the road to success.
“Maybe Food Is My Voice”
Limb-girdle muscular dystrophy causes weakness and wasting of the muscles, often in the hips and legs, so trips and falls come with the territory. But prior to naming his pie, Zureikat, who was just 38, had been keeping quiet about his diagnosis. Then, one day, he got a rude awakening from a total stranger.
“I was walking my dog, Einstein, in my neighborhood, and my leg gave out, and I fell,” he remembers. “That happens, unfortunately—just randomly. This time I fell with someone walking behind me. She saw me fall and didn’t offer any help. I was on the ground and pulled myself up, and she just kept walking. That just triggered me. I didn’t want her help or anything, but I got sick of myself hiding it.”
At this point, Tung had decided to feature Zureikat’s pizza—which didn’t have a name yet—as a solo monthly special throughout November 2021 to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). “That’s when I called it the Tripping Billy,” Zureikat says. “I wanted to speak out and use that pizza as a platform and share the story of my diagnosis and how I had to reinvent myself through cooking and food. I trip a lot, so that’s why I called it the Tripping Billy.”
“I love the Tripping Billy pizza,” Tung says. “I was a little hesitant about the name at first, worried that it was too on the head. But Billy wanted to name it that and was fine with poking fun at himself, so we went forward with it.”
After all, an extraordinary pizza deserves a catchy name. “The flavors and the textures of the corn, the shishito peppers, etc., really make it a great pizza, not to mention the vibrant colors,” Tung notes.
Paulie Gee’s sold 148 Tripping Billy pizzas that month, and its success inspired Zureikat to launch his own fundraising campaign for the MDA. “I realized I was starting to find my voice, and that my voice actually had some power,” he says. “I could make a difference. I realized that maybe food is my voice.”
Going On Tour
Zureikat introduced the Tripping Billy to other Chicago restaurateurs, and a series of collaborations—called the Tripping Billy Tour—took off in 2022. He adapted the recipe for different styles, showcasing it at a total of eight pizzerias, including Pizza Friendly Pizza (Sicilian-style), Crust Fund Pizza (tavern-style) and Milly’s Pizza in the Pan (pan-style). He has also developed other Tripping Billy items, including a breakfast sandwich for Spinning J, a sub sandwich for JP Graziano and a burger for Goose Island Brewery.
He kicked off his 2023 tour in January at Zazas Pizzeria, lauded for its New York-style pies with a Neapolitan flair. Every stop of the tour raises money for the MDA, with a tally of about $35,000 so far.
Zureikat’s restaurant partners reap the benefits, too, Tung says. “I think Billy is doing great things with his plan to focus on raising funds for charity through his culinary creations, all the while collaborating with local restaurants to help drive traffic and attention to these restaurants as well.”
Can Zureikat envision launching his own restaurant one day? “Physically, it’s a little tough for me with my disability,” he says. “But I’m going to be involved in food. I have a lot of ideas, and I’m growing a following here.”
For Billy, the Tripping Billy pizza has been about reinventing himself while raising awareness for muscular dystrophy. “It’s changed my life completely. I went from an unknown home baker, and now [restaurateurs] are reaching out to me….I joke about it all the time: I traded in my jersey for an apron. My story is truly unique, and I want to inspire people to know that, regardless of your health, you can see what I’m doing and say, ‘You know what? I’m going through a tough time, but I can find something that brings me joy.’”
Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.