If you’ve been lucky enough to get your hands on one of Logan Square resident Billy Zureikat’s “Tripping Billy” pizza slices, odds are you’re familiar with his story. While it is a tale about food, one likely to inspire even the humblest of home cooks, it’s also a story about reinvention and finding inspiration among moments of loss.
And If you haven’t heard about the Tripping Billy, you’re in for a treat – most likely along with a serious pizza craving.
It all began with a rare diagnosis. At the age of 38, Zureikat was diagnosed with limb-girdle muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes weakness and muscle deterioration in the arms and legs. In Zureikat’s case, this disease affects his legs. “I started noticing things when I was 30 years old,” he said. “I didn’t pay much attention to it and chalked it up to getting old and clumsy.”
But when Zureikat noticed he was falling around the house without provocation, he knew he needed to take action. After years of back and forth between doctors, countless medical bills, very few answers, and regular gym visits to rebuild lost muscle, Zureikat finally received his diagnosis on March 12, 2021. “My diagnosis is very difficult,” he said. “There are no treatments and no cures. And it’s going to regress as time goes on.”
A Passion For Cooking
As a coping mechanism and healthy distraction, Zureikat turned to cooking, something he’s always loved. Zureikat said he’s picked up a lot of cooking tips from the pros over the years. “If I had an X-Men mutant power, it would be my ability to become friends with people in the food and beverage industry,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from them.”
Zureikat is a longtime fan of Paulie Gee’s, a Detroit-style pizzeria with spots in Logan Square (2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.), Wicker Park, and across the country. Taking an interest in making Motor City-style pizza himself, Zureikat asked Derrick Tung, owner of Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, for advice. Shortly after, Tung invited Zureikat into the pizzeria’s kitchen, where the two discussed dough style and pan types and a friendship blossomed.
“My first pizzas kind of sucked,” Zureikat said with a laugh, “but I kept practicing at home and got to the point where I had Derrick try my pizza.” The test product? A pie piled high with corn, mozzarella, cheddar cheese, and pickled jalapeños and finished with scallions, whole roasted peppers, and Zureikat’s creamy shishito pepper sauce. Tung liked the slice so much that Zureikat’s creation became a special at Paulie Gee’s the following month.
But it’s what transpired in the days leading up to the special that set Zureikat on his current path.
The Tripping Billy
A few days before his creation became a Paulie Gee’s special, Zureikat fell on the sidewalk while walking his dog. “A woman was walking behind me at the time. She saw me fall but continued walking,” said Zureikat. “I didn’t want her help, but I was fed up. This woman probably thought I was some drunk who fell and didn’t think anything of it. I decided I was done hiding this diagnosis.”
Zureikat asked Tung to change the name of his pizza to the “Tripping Billy,” a nod to Zureikat’s self-deprecating humor and an attempt to raise awareness for muscular dystrophy and share his story. He requested that a small portion of the pizza’s sales go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA).
And with that, food became Zureikat’s rallying call.
Muscular Dystrophy Awareness
He didn’t stop with the one special. Within a year, Zureikat’s Tripping Billy has graced the menu at pizzerias and restaurants like Pizza Friendly Pizza in Ukrainian Village and Table, Donkey and Stick (2728 W. Armitage Ave.) in Logan Square, in addition to Paulie Gee’s. It has taken the form of a breakfast sandwich at Spinning J in Humboldt Park and a sub sandwich at JP Graziano’s in the West Loop, with many more collaborations in the works. While the sandwiches bear no resemblance to the standard shishito pepper and corn combination, each pizzeria uses Zureikat’s ingredients but places its own unique spin on the pie. “I want Tripping Billy to be the namesake. Even when the product is different, the name will always stay the same,” said Zureikat.
With each collaboration, a portion of the proceeds go to the MDA, for which Zureikat is now the Illinois ambassador. “A lot of people in my position may not want or have the platform to talk about it,” he said. “I’m comfortable after not being comfortable, and I’m trying to become the voice of the voiceless. All of that came through the food.” Zureikat has now raised more than $8,000 for the MDA and said he hopes to one day become a national ambassador.
While Zureikat’s life is busier than ever, he still deals with the pain of his diagnosis. “I feel like Harvey Dent from Batman because half of me is out in the public eye, raising awareness, speaking about something very personal. But the other half of me is broken. When I fall, it messes with my mind. I get frustrated, depressed and angry. I go through the gamut of emotions, and sometimes I don’t want to get back up.”
With the unwavering support of his family, his partner and the community, however, Zureikat said he knows there is nowhere to go but up. “I want to get the message out that food helped me reinvent myself. You can experience loss in your life, but you will get through it. You are going to find something that inspires you again. The marathon continues.”
Catch The Tripping Billy Tour This Summer
This summer, you can become a Tripping Billy fan as Zureikat goes on his Tripping Billy Tour, featuring collaborations with restaurants throughout the city, including Logan’s Pizza Lobo (3000 W. Fullerton Ave.), Wicker Park’s Piece, and more. Additionally, on Saturday, June 4, Zureikat will emcee the Muscle Walk of Illinois at Ty Warner Park in Westmont, one of the MDA’s biggest annual events. Follow this link if you’d like to register or donate.
Lastly, to stay up to date on Zureikat’s latest collaborations and fundraisers, be sure to follow him on Instagram @therealbillyz. You can also donate to his fundraising campaign, with all proceeds going to the MDA.
Featured photo: Samantha Parquette