Rudolph “Rudy” Ferrante, 91, the former longtime owner of Rudy’s Diner in South Portland and a respected businessman who friends say was “legendary” in the Portland area, died Thursday. He was 91.

Mr. Ferrante grew up on Newbury Street in Portland’s Little Italy neighborhood. He was the youngest of four children. His family was poor. His father died when he was 9 years old.

At an early age, he learned the value of hard work. He owned and operated several businesses throughout his life. In his early years, he owned a cleaning business. In the 1950s, he co-owned restaurants including the Forest Gardens and Espans Quick Lunch in Portland. In the mid 1960s, he opened Rudy’s Lunch on Middle Street in Portland. He also owned Harbor Lunch on Commercial Street. Most recently, he owned and operated the iconic Rudy’s Diner on Main Street in South Portland. He retired in 1992, after running the diner for 17 years.

Mr. Ferrante was remembered this week as a respected businessman, a loyal friend and dedicated family man who worked hard to create a beautiful life for himself and his family.

His son, Tommy Ferrante, of Jupiter, Florida, said his father was a short-order cook known for his meatloaf dinners, spaghetti and meatballs, omelets and Italian toast.

“I always said he cooked the best breakfast I ever had,” his son said. “My father liked to do a lot of things at once. If you went in, he greeted you. He enjoyed feeding people. He had a flare for knowing what people wanted and how to prepare it for them. He enjoyed that.”

Mr. Ferrante was an accomplished athlete and a standout in fast-pitch softball. He played competitively in the 1940s through early 1960s. In the late 1990s, he became only the second man to be inducted in the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in fast-pitch softball.

“He was considered one of the best hitters of his era,” his son said.

Mr. Ferrante retired from the game in 1959. Years later, his son started a softball team and convinced his father to play. At age 45, he played first base for the team.

“We played the defending city champs in the first game of the year. In his first at-bat in seven years, he hit a home run against the best pitcher in the city,” his son said, choking up. “It made me appreciate how really terrific of an athlete he was. He was tough. He was competitive and demanding. He kept the standards high for himself and us young guys. He wanted us to give it our all … be smart, concentrate and always have our heads in the game.”

He was a loving husband to his wife, Elinor Ferrante, for 64 years. They raised three sons. Tommy Ferrante talked openly about his father’s devotion to family. He took care of his wife, who lives at Pine Point Nursing Home and has been blind for over 35 years. He took her on many trips and cruises, and visited her at the nursing home more than 2,100 times.

Mr. Ferrante was a competitive golfer and longtime member of Purpoodock Country Club.

“He had a tremendous 10 handicap. He was one of those guys you didn’t want to play against in a match,” his son said.

At 53 years old, he took up tennis and played with men more than 20 years his junior. He played often with a group of 12 friends until he suffered a stroke. His son said he has been battling heart disease since 1999. In the days since Ferrante died, friends and family have turned to Facebook to share memories and photos of him.

Bobby Russo, owner and head coach at Portland Boxing Club, said he was an “iconic” person in the Portland area.

“Rudy was a successful person in life and he did it the old fashioned way … by working hard for it,” Russo said. “He got it done. People supported Rudy in business because he was a good guy. He was one of the Portland greats, really.”