By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jun 25, 2012 at 9:03 AM

When Brian Ward opened Ward's House of Prime in 2009, he had no intention of presiding over a nationally publicized eating competition. The veteran general manager of Mo's steakhouse simply wanted his own upscale restaurant with a beefy flair.

But this is Milwaukee, the land of large appetites, and the affable Ward finds himself in the middle of something big. Like serving a hunk of prime rib weighing more than 10 pounds to a single customer, who needed no doggie bag when he finished eating.

Seventy-three diners have eaten 40-ounce slabs of prime rib at Ward's. We know this because their names are on Ward's Prime Rib Wall of Fame. Eighteen have downed 64-ounce portions. That is 4 pounds, for the math challenged.

There are four names on the wall for having devoured 72 ounces, three for 88 ounces, two for 96, two for 106, and one each for 125, 160 and 168 ounces. Four diners' names repeatedly appear as they compete to top each other.

This all started when Dane Kasper went into Ward's with a big hunger one night and asked if he could order a portion of prime larger than the 8, 16 and 24-ounce options being offered. Ward served him 40 ounces, Kasper finished it, and the restaurateur promised to put the new portion on the menu and name it after his customer.

Brian's sister, Katie Ward, handles publicity and promotion for the restaurant, and she posted on Facebook and Twitter a picture of Kasper eating his large slab of prime rib. Other diners ordered the over-sized portion, and they also got their photos in the social media.

The 40-ounce championship mark fell as a competition developed among Ward's customers. Each person had to eat at least eight ounces more than the previous title holder to have the cut named after him or her.

Two women are on the Wall of Fame. Franzconshelle Valerio, a cocktail waitress at Ward's, has downed a 50-ounce portion. "She's tiny, about 5' 1", Brian said during a chat last week.

Marquette student Alyssa DiGilio, who is also small-framed, has the 72-ounce slab named after her.

While all of this was going on, producers at the Travel Channel were trolling the web looking for restaurants to feature on their "Big Beef Paradise" series. They found Katie Ward's tweets and Facebook posts and came to Milwaukee in October to tape a segment at Ward's.

Three regular diners who had previously eaten more than 100 ounces of prime – Kurt Schmidt, Al Halaka and Mike Litman – sat down at a table with the cameras rolling. They were served 160-ounce – that is 10 pounds – portions, and Halaka was the first to finish the serving, in 31 minutes. Litman was a few bites behind, and decided to up the ante. He ate 8 more ounces, making him the reigning consumption champion at 168 ounces.

The Travel Channel aired the Ward's segment in December, and the impact was immediate. Unable to handle all of the traffic, the restaurant's website crashed.

A group of 18 from Indianapolis drove to Milwaukee to eat at Ward's. Reservations came from as far as Atlanta.

"People ask us to ship them the meat. We don't do that," Ward says.

The Travel Channel has the program on a broadcast rotation, and the restaurateur said he always knows when the feature has been aired again. The phone starts ringing with calls from out of town.

"This doesn't just benefit us, although it has been great for business," Katie Ward says. "People ask about Milwaukee, and we tell them about all the things to do here."

Ward's uses post-cooked weights in its measurements. When the bone and fat is removed from a 10-pound portion, Brian estimates the diner gets between 8 and 9 pounds of pure meat.

Customers receive a potato choice and their option of soup or salad with the beef. Ward says his big eaters often devour the entire meal, adding that Halaka had a slice of chocolate cake after consuming 96 ounces of prime rib.

The publicity has boosted sales of all prime portion sizes. The smallest, 8 ounces, is priced at $23, and the 168 ouncer, named after Litman, costs $230. The 40-ounce slab – "Mike Litman eats that like a snack," says Ward – is $63.

For a $10 per plate split charge, multiple customers can order and share one monster portion. A party of eight could not collectively finish a 168-ounce serving.

You don't have to be a beef eater to dine at Ward's. Other entrees include panko-crusted walleye ($31), lobster ravioli with white truffle cream sauce ($23), and even a vegetarian dish, eggplant involtini ($16). Flatbreads and seven salads are also on the menu.

Ward says his big eaters have a general strategy when going for the high numbers. Drink a lot of water the day before to expand the stomach, nibble on breakfast, skip lunch, and when the platter of prime is placed before you, down the serving quickly before your body catches on to what you are doing.

The big question now is whether Litman's 168-ounce record will stand. "Someone came in here and tried to eat 212 ounces," Ward says. "He didn't come close."

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.