March 21, 2019

Las Vegas’ Pizza Expo: More Than The World’s Biggest Pizza Party

by Joe Bonadio

Trade shows are, without question, a mixed bag. Having been on the edges of the marketing and advertising world for a long time, I’ve been to more than my share over the years. That being said, those shows that revolve around food and beverage are always hands-down the best. Case in point: the Fancy Food Show, an event I’ve enjoyed a few times, which comes to San Francisco every January. It’s always a blast–just as any event involving hundreds of friendly people, all of whom are eager to feed you, is a winner by definition.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Las Vegas to attend my very first Pizza Expo: the biggest pizza trade show and event in the world. Having heard so much about this event, my expectations were admittedly high. After all, this was the show that brought together the most celebrated names in the pizza world–the pizza cognoscenti, if you will. And the most accomplished pizza makers had competed and shared secrets here for thirty-five years. There wasn’t another show like Pizza Expo anywhere.

Pizza Team

Team Gemignani kicks off Pizza Expo 2019 in Las Vegas. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

Happily, I was not to be disappointed. Granted, this is a trade show, and many of the exhibitors were what you might expect: flour millers, oven makers, tomato and cheese suppliers by the dozen, kitchen equipment of every stripe. And it just went on from there. I saw myriad POS systems, next-level marketing platforms, storage and delivery systems, even a booth selling nonslip shoes (for your kitchen staff, naturally).

It approached the absurd, and I even saw one woman who was hawking medical devices. When I asked her what they had to do with pizza, she said “Absolutely nothing. My company told me this was a medical convention.” Laughing, I told her to look on the bright side. “At least there’s a lot of pizza,” I said, gesturing to the hall around me, pizza being served left and right. “I hate pizza,” she told me, stone-faced. (I quickly moved along. I don’t trust people who don’t like pizza.)

Even beyond the slew of products, there’s an awful lot happening here: demos of every kind, world-champion cooking competitions, and of course the pizza acrobat competitions that serve as the finale of the four-day event. And to answer the obvious question, yes: pizza is everywhere. There must have been two hundred exhibitors continuously baking and serving pizza to the crowds the entire time. Viewing the proceedings, you immediately understood why the event wasn’t open to the general public. Business focus aside, it would be an unmanageable mob scene.

My first taste of the Expo took place at a paid demo on Day 2, hosted by our very own Tony Gemignani. Long one of the driving forces behind the Expo, Tony and his team have been instrumental in building it up, from a fledgling show to the international powerhouse it is today. Fittingly Tony had his own dedicated demo stage, and when I showed up the bleachers were full, with a dozen people scurrying about behind the prep tables, busily readying things for the crowd. I recognized Laura Meyer (Executive Chef for Tony’s Pizza Rock locations) from San Francisco, and Toussaint Potter (Chef T), Executive Chef at AT&T Park, who I had met the night before. And of course, Tony–otherwise, there were a lot of unfamiliar faces.

Tony Demo Expo

Tony in his element, teaching the crowds at Pizza Expo. | Photo: Sarah Inloes

There were nearly 150 spectators, all there at 8 a.m. to watch Tony make pizza and share his knowledge. As at all the demos, many of the attendees clutched copies of Tony’s Pizza Bible, most to be autographed at some point. Some of them were restaurateurs, a few were home chefs, a few were writers like me. All came to glean whatever they could from the Pizza King, Tony Gemignani, the most visible figure at these events for years now.

And ever the welcoming host, Tony was more than happy to accommodate: as I’ve come to find out, the guy is a very capable speaker, and a natural at working the crowd. Tony was very much in his element at the show, and seemed to thrive on the frenetic activity. Events like this one can be chaotic to orchestrate, and Tony is perpetually in the eye of the hurricane, cooking, teaching and answering questions. And let’s not forget, feeding the attendees some of the best pizza anywhere. From Neapolitan to Grandma Style to Detroit Pan Pizza, Tony made a little bit of everything, explaining every step of the process as he went. And as it came out of the ovens, the hungry crowd got to sample it all.

Big Mixer

Everything a pizza chef could ever need, including a mixer bigger than a Volkswagen. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Once each scheduled event wrapped up, and the books had been signed and the flesh pressed, we’d be off to the other side of the convention floor. It’s a big space–and this was an extremely slow process. That’s because every twelve feet or so, someone would ambush Tony. “Hey Tony, how are you!” “Tony, can I get a picture?” “Tony, can you sign your book for my niece?” I’m not exaggerating, either. I’ve heard people say it, and it’s true: in Vegas, Tony is a full-blown celebrity. And at Pizza Expo, Tony is the King.

Meanwhile, there was time in between demos and other happenings, so I had the chance to wander around to see the exhibits and ‘network’. Mainly, I ate more pizza. There was so much of it that it was easy to be choosy, and I must admit, the quality of what I tasted over the course of the event was uniformly high. Takeaway: there are a lot of good pizza makers out there–and apparently an awful lot of them show up to Pizza Expo every year.

There was a lot to see before the Expo was over, and the event’s climax was the World Pizza Games pizza acrobat competition on Wednesday night. Pizzaiolos who compete in the Games participate in a series of events during the course of the week, including for Fastest Dough, Largest Dough Stretch, even Fastest Pizza Box Folding. Another hotly contested event is the Pizza Triathlon, in which contestants are required to first fold a pizza box, then stretch two 22-ounce balls of dough, one to 16 inches in diameter, the other to 24 inches. Judges do not accept any hole larger than a #2 pencil, and times are recorded down to the hundredth of a second.

But the Freestyle Acrobatic Dough Tossing showdown is the one that draws the biggest crowds. First place winners snare a $1,000 cash prize along with some serious bragging rights, and it is a coveted prize in the industry. The hall was jammed with hundreds of conventioneers, the food and drink were flowing, and the crowd was in full party mode.

Chef T

Chef T demonstrates proper dough-balling technique for attendees at this year’s Pizza Expo. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

If you’ve never seen a world-class pizza acrobat, it is beyond what you are imagining. I had only seen tapes prior to this, and for this event I had a front row seat (Thanks T!). Things got off to a rollicking start with the ‘Pizza Boys’, Michael and Nicholas Testa. The outgoing offspring of Pizza Games judge Carmine Testa (owner of Carmine’s Pizza Factory in Jersey City), they are just 11 and 13, but sling the dough like veterans. These kids have obviously been practicing, and they were all over the stage with their routine. Here I discovered the one disadvantage of good seats: the performers like to throw the dough out to the crowd, and the kids almost nailed me in the head twice.

Once things moved on to the finals, the true pizza athletes took to the stage. There were two heats, the first taken by upstart Juntae Jin of South Korea. Jin took a particularly theatrical approach, donning Joker-style makeup and a device that turned his mouth into a miniature light show. Both the music and choreography were deliberately edgy, and Jin’s performance clearly got the crowd’s attention. The judges, too: his scores were excellent across the board.

But in the end, Jin would fall to a member of his own pizza team: Moon Ky Lee also tosses for Mr. Pizza in South Korea (the country’s biggest pizza chain, with over 400 locations). Lee earned his title, turning in a routine that was nearly flawless, and notable for its dizzying speed. If you blinked, you might have missed his one drop; even compared to the other performers, his routine was electrifying.

And it turns out, Tony actually has a history with the Mr. Pizza people. Fully fifteen years ago, two executives from the company met Tony–at that year’s Pizza Expo. At the time, Tony was active on the pizza acrobat circuit, with a number of world titles under his belt. He even had a line of how-to tapes for aspiring pizza throwers, which he was selling at the show.

The men told Tony that their pizzerias were number two in South Korea, behind the dreaded Pizza Hut. Understandably, they wanted to be number one in their home country, so they were planning to start a pizza team. They bought Tony’s tapes–and as they say, the rest is history.

All in all, Pizza Expo was an eye-opening and incredibly fun experience, one which I hope to repeat. Of course, we’ll be returning to the topic of Pizza Expo in future posts–there is so much more to this event than any one piece can cover. Meanwhile, enjoy the first week of Springtime, and we’ll see you here soon!