City Burger owner Art Reale, center, credits his girlfriend, Cyn Phillips, and his son, Tony, for helping him to turn the business around.

By Donald Wittkowski

Art Reale learned to fly in his late 50s, has made four perilous dives to the famed Andrea Doria shipwreck and worked for 20 years as a bouncer in Sea Isle City.


This self-described “tough guy” and black belt in martial arts obviously does not shy away from danger.


While still fighting colon cancer, Reale took another risk of sorts in April 2015 by buying a Sea Isle burger place that had what he called a “horrible” reputation.


“We sat here and nobody went in. We thought we would go out of business,” he recalled of his early days of ownership of City Burger at 42nd Street and Landis Avenue.


Helped by his son, Tony, and his girlfriend, Cyn Phillips, Reale has since engineered a turnaround that has boosted City Burger’s business and enhanced its image with customers.


“From the Fourth of July to Labor Day, it really took off,” Reale said of City Burger’s about-face in 2015.


Before its resurgence, City Burger ranked last in customer reviews on Yelp and Google, Reale noted.


“Now we’re No. 1 on Yelp and Google,” he said. “People are saying, ‘It’s the best burger we’ve ever had.'”

Reale explained that City Burger’s overhaul began with his commitment to use only the freshest ingredients to create tasty burgers. “Fresh is Best” signs were posted in the store to let customers know Reale was serious. To top things off, he bought an $8,000 hamburger maker.


Five days a week, he travels to a butcher shop in Rosenhayn, N.J., to buy fresh meat. In the summer, he gets fresh vegetables from local farmers.


Reale said business is up this summer, but he has set an ambitious goal to double his sales next year.

Burger 2.4
City Burger is located at 42nd Street and Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City.

“We have the horsepower. We can do it,” he said.


While Reale looks to build up his business, he is also focused on his battle against cancer. He is preparing for his 62nd chemotherapy treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Camden.


He was diagnosed with colon cancer after his son rushed him to the Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House on Chistmas Day in 2013 while he was suffering from severe abdominal pain. His doctors performed emergency surgery.


“I woke up the next day with tubes everywhere and intravenous bags everywhere,” he said. “I spent 31 days in the hospital. They saved my life.”


Reale also credits his son, his girlfriend and other close friends and family members for providing a support network that has helped him cope with cancer.


His chemotherapy treatments every two weeks shrink three small tumors in his body and keep them from spreading.


He stressed that he is determined to beat cancer. The gritty Reale is featured in a television commercial and magazine ads by MD Anderson.


“I’m definitely tougher than the average bear,” he said.


Now 66 years old, Reale displayed his toughness when he taught himself to dive in his early teens. Later, in the 1970s, he plunged through the frigid and inky waters of the Atlantic Ocean to explore the wreck of the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria. The Andrea Doria is so dangerous that it is considered the “Mount Everest of diving.”


“It was cold and dark. There were a lot of fishing nets on the wreck,” Reale said. “It was amazing.”


Reale’s adventurous side was evident again about nine years ago, when he learned to fly in his late 50s. He keeps his plane, a Beechcraft Musketeer, at the Woodbine airport.

A big, colorful sign overlooking the sidewalk on Landis Avenue helps to attract customers.

Relecting Reale’s love of aviation, the interior of City Burger is decorated with aircraft photos on the walls and a model plane hanging from the ceiling.


“When the little kids come in, they say ‘Wow,'” Reale said of their reaction to his aviation collection.


Reale first moved to Sea Isle City 30 years ago and is now a full-time resident. He moved back to the area in 2014 after spending time in Florida managing several marinas and other projects.


He recalled how he worked as a bouncer for 20 years at Kix McNutley’s, the entertainment and nightclub complex owned by Sea Isle Mayor Leonard Desiderio.

Reale credited Desiderio, his close friend, for revitalizing the business district and orchestrating Sea Isle’s evolution into a family-friendly vacation destination. As a new business owner, Reale said he has confidence in the town’s future.


“There is great potential here in the next couple of years. I think it’s going to boom,” he predicted.