Neelys Bring Down-Home Style to Tunica

LESLEY YOUNG | Special to The Daily News

It’s an age-old argument, and Pat and Gina Neely know it well.

“I like a lot of sauce, but Gina likes her ribs dry,” said Pat, of Neely’s Bar-B-Que and Food Network fame.

“Even our daughters are divided,” said the wife, Gina. “Thank God we’re able to cook both ways.”

Their ability to accommodate opposing tastes is one of the secret ingredients that launched the culinary couple into celebrityhood.

Since first appearing on Food Network’s “Road Tasted” in 2006, the dynamic duo have moved on to hosting their own series, “Down Home with the Neelys,” one of the network’s highest-rated shows, making guest appearances on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” among many others, as well as publishing a national bestseller cookbook, “Down Home with the Neelys.”

Their latest endeavor, “Neelys LIVE!,” a live cooking demo featuring a three-course meal and a live band, Party Planet, premieres Saturday at Harrah’s Tunica.

“We’re so excited to be kicking this off,” said Gina Neely. “We want to take the idea of a cooking demo to another level. We hope for it to be much more engaging for the audience.”

In addition to revealing some of the secrets behind their favorite dishes, the barbecue gurus will present home movies and play games with a seven-piece band providing the soundtrack.

“We try to take the intimidation out of cooking. It should be something you embrace and have a good time,” Neely said.

Having a good time is where it all started for the Neelys.

Gina Neely got her start in the kitchen enjoying the company of her family at her great-grandmother’s house.

“She cooked three squares a day,” she said. “We were always getting together. My culinary school was totally her kitchen. That was instrumental to my love of cooking. And I know Pat and I came from similar backgrounds.”

Any time Pat Neely’s family gathered together, his grandfather was in the back yard tending to the grill, a “big black drum,” the day before.

“My grandmother always made the sauce and potato salad,” he said. “Barbecue’s been in my blood a long time. At the end of the day, I’m sure their techniques and recipes have their way of sticking around and staying with me. I’m sure my grandfather’s looking down and saying, ‘Damn, I taught that boy right.’”

Pat Neely took that tradition and offered it to the Mid-South when he and his three brothers opened their first barbecue restaurant in 1988, a 60-seat “office space” Downtown with a grill pit in the back.

“My love of barbecue is very strong. Even at a very early age, I knew what I wanted to do,” Neely said. “We just jumped out there, and after 23 years, I have no regrets.”

Eventually the Food Network would get wind of their sweet tomato-base sauce, and come give it a try, a day Gina Neely said she remembers well.

“It was so hot that day,” she recalled. “I went down there at 5 in the morning to set everything up outside, and it was all so pretty. I could see the producer sweating and saying, ‘Man, it’s hot out here,’ and he wanted to move everything inside. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ The producer said, ‘Man, she’s not afraid of TV people.’ I guess they thought they found this crazy couple. It was zero to 80 after that.”

With their own agents and assistants, producers and camera crews in and out of their home incessantly, life has changed for the Neelys, but they try to hold on to their roots and where it all started.

“Getting together with my family to eat a meal has always been very important to me, and I try to pass on the tradition to our girls. It’s still very important to us to sit down on Sunday and share a meal together,” Gina Neely said. “Food is a way for the soul to open up. Everybody can talk and relate. It’s another expression of love.”

“Neelys LIVE!” begins Saturday at 4 p.m. Tickets are $15, $25 or $45. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, visit their website at or go to Harrah’s Casino box office or Harrah’s-owned gift shops in Tunica. Guests must be 21 years and older.