TAMPA— Restaurateur Malio Iavarone remembers George Steinbrenner III as a mere human with a big heart, an explosive temper — and a few regrets.
"He was sorry when things he said came out negative," Iavarone said of Steinbrenner, his friend of more than 30 years.
Steinbrenner, the 80-year-old Tampa resident and New York Yankees owner, died Tuesday of a heart attack.
Steinbrenner was a regular at the old Malio's steak house on S Dale Mabry Highway, where business deals went down over red meat and a side of Caesar salad.
The big guy let his guard down when only his closest friends were around, revealing a side few people ever saw.
"He loved people, but he didn't know how to show it," Iavarone said Tuesday. "Lot of things he said, he never meant the way they came out. It would hurt him when he hurt someone's feelings, but he would never apologize."
Even Iavarone was a target of a few of the famous outbursts. Never mind that Steinbrenner was just a customer.
"He actually fired me from Malio's one night,'' he said. "I didn't pay no attention to him."
But the bond of their friendship knew no bounds.
Steinbrenner once flew Iavarone and Tampa stockbroker Jimmy Warren and their wives to New York.
"He took care of everything," Iavarone said. "Dinner at Elaine's, rooms at the Plaza."
Then there was the broken elevator.
"The Warrens got stuck in the elevator for 16 hours,'' Iavarone said. "George found out and came down like Patton, screaming, 'Get my friend out of there, and I mean now!' He woke up the whole hotel."
In the late 1990s, Steinbrenner picked up the restaurant's $1.5 million mortgage.
"I thought he was kidding,'' Iavarone said, recalling Steinbrenner's offer.
"He said, 'What the hell's wrong with you? I've been telling you for over a year. Don't you trust me?,' " Iavarone said.
His deal: No interest until Iavarone retired or sold the place.
But when the lawyers and accountants got involved, they insisted on 2.5 percent annual interest.
Steinbrenner roared his displeasure, ultimately acquiescing to the low interest. But he accepted no principal payments until the restaurant sold in 2005.
"He was as tough as they come,'' Iavarone said. "If he told you he was going to do something, he did it. He was the Boss."
They almost did business again, when Ivarone and his son Derek were opening Malio's Prime in downtown Tampa in 2007.
"He offered me $2 million to be a 50-50 partner," Iavarone said. "Lou Piniella is a witness."
But something was off.
"We could tell George was not the same George,'' he said. "They've been hiding his health for years, but they couldn't fool me."
Iavarone will sorely miss his friend.
"I adore the guy, you understand me?"