Born in New York City, Riggio attended Brooklyn Technical High School, graduating in 1958, followed by evening classes at New York University.
His father, Steve Riggio, was a professional boxer who twice defeated Rocky Graziano.
His brother, Steve Riggio, was CEO of the Barnes & Noble chain of bookstores, until replaced by William Lynch in 2010.
While at New York University, Riggio founded the Student Book Exchange in 1965 and turned this small book store into a leading retailer. He acquired the Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York City in 1971 and adopted its name for his expanding company. Through the years, he acquired hundreds of bookstores and launched the Barnes & Noble superstore concept with an in-store coffee shop and spacious reading alcoves.
Riggio is recognized as being among the first entrepreneurs who turned the elitist world of bookstores into recreational stores. In 1997, Barnes & Noble had 483 superstores, 528 mall-based B.Daltons, and sales went up to $2.8 billion. The company went public in 1993.
Riggio launched barnesandnoble.com to compete with Amazon.com for on-line book sales and launched a successful video game retail operation which grew to become GameStop. By the end of the 20th century, Riggio had built Barnes & Noble into the largest book seller in the world.
Since 1985 Riggio has been Chairman of the Board and 49% owner of MBS Textbook Exchange, Inc. based in Columbia, Missouri. MBS is one of the nation's largest wholesalers of college textbooks.
Riggio's awards include the Americanism Award from the Anti-Defamation League in November 2000. This award is the ADL's highest honor.
Riggio is the benefactor of many community organizations and charities, including New York University and the Dia:Beacon art museum in Beacon, New York.
He also established Project Home Again to assist residents of New Orleans, Louisiana, who were affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Project Home Again will spend $20 million from the Riggio Foundation to build new homes in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. The pilot phase involves building 20 new homes on St. Bernard Avenue. On November 10, 2011, the program cut the ribbon on its 101st home. In addition to rebuilding the homes, the Riggios, through a partnership with Rooms to Go, also furnished the homes. On November 24, 2012, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu awarded the Riggios keys to the City of New Orleans at a City Council meeting.