Sizzling Success

A history and guide to the Philly cheesesteak, our city’s unique contribution to the world’s culinary stage. 

Next to Will Smith and the Declaration of Independence, cheesesteaks are arguably the most famous thing to come out of Philly. Restaurants across the country will feature “Philly Cheesesteaks” on their menus, proving that the world-renowned sliced steak sandwich on a long roll with cheese belongs to us. The very first thing visitors to the City of Brotherly Love will ask a local, is almost always: “Where is the best place to get a cheesesteak?” This of course is usually followed by “With or without whiz?” and then: “Wait, what is whiz?” 😂

Despite how the answers to these questions varying greatly, one thing is for sure — cheesesteaks are a Philly staple! As usual with our city, there’s also a fun backstory….

The sandwich we know as the cheesesteak actually originated from a hot dog cart in South Philadelphia near the Italian Market. Pat Olivieri wanted a lunch different from his typical hot dogs, and decided on a grilled beef sandwich with onions on a toasted roll – hold the cheese. A passing cab driver, a regular customer of the hot dog stand, tried the sandwich and told Olivieri he should start selling them.

Pat Olivieri opened up Pat’s King of Steaks across from the hot dog stand where he specialized in his steak sandwich. In the 1940s, high demand provoked manager “Cocky Joe”, who was infamously drunk during his shifts and typically not the most productive employee, to add sliced provolone to the sandwich. That is when the cheesesteak was officially created. Nearly 90 years later, Pat’s King of Steaks is still operated by the Olivieri family and holds the crown as the creator of the famous Philly cheesesteak.

The next big cheesesteak empire to open was Jim’s Steaks in West Philly on 62nd and Noble in 1939. Located on the other side of the city, the two restaurants weren’t in immediate competition with each other. In 1966, Joey Ventro opened up Geno’s Steaks at 9th and Passyunk. Pat’s bought a location on the same street, birthing the well-known Pat’s and Geno’s rivalry.

As for cheese whiz, the cheesy liquid goo (that’s not really cheese, sorry), began it’s residency on the Philly cheesesteak in the 1950s, shortly after it hit shelves as a product of Kraft Foods company. Pat’s Steaks began keeping it near the grill for customers to try. As more and more customers began oozing in excitement for the concoction, other steak shops such as Geno’s and Jim’s began using it on their sandwiches as well. The argument between classic provolone and whiz remains, but either is available at many popular cheesesteak storefronts.

Since the big bang of cheesesteaks in the mid 20th century, countless cheesesteak places have opened up around the city, claiming to have perfected the sandwich. Some of these sandwiches have been featured on well-known food and travel shows, such as Delassandro’s Steaks in Roxborough, as seen on Somebody Feed Phil (season 6 premiere), and Max’s Steaks in North Philly (Germantown Ave), which had a cameo in the movie Creed.

A few of my personal favorite steak shops include Spataros in Reading Terminal Market, Campos on Market St. in Old City, and Joe’s Steaks on Girard in Fishtown. If you’re a proud Philadelphian but not a meat eater, Monster Vegan in the Gayborhood and Triangle Tavern in Passyunk have fantastic vegan cheesteaks.

What Makes A Good Philly Cheesesteak? A handy checklist for hardcore connoisseurs.

  • Thinly-sliced, flaked ribeye steak – the meat should cook quickly, for maximum tenderness.
  • The bread needs to be soft on the inside to soak up all the juices, but it also needs a crust that’s strong enough to hold everything together while still being thin enough to easily bite through without smushing the sandwich (an Amoroso hoagie roll is ideal)
  • Cheese can be American or provolone or even <shudder> Cheez Whiz
  • With fried onions or without is a personal choice, as is sweet or hot peppers. Many shops will offer additional toppings because people will pay for them but that doesn’t mean they belong on a real Philly cheesesteak (they don’t).
  • In general, cheesesteaks don’t require condiments as they are quite drippy enough but some locals will add ketchup and/or mayo (we try not to judge). Mustard, though? Don’t even.

Honorable Mention: The Pizza Steak, an ooey gooey indulgence that is nowhere near authentic but it’s a super delicious variation, especially when you can’t decide between cheesesteaks or pizza (it’s got tomato sauce & mozzarella).

COMMENTS WELCOME! So where is the best place to get a cheesesteak? Have you tried any listed here? Or making your own at home? To whiz or not to whiz? Please chime in below, or catch up with me on Instagram @gingersliketoeat. If you enjoyed this feature, please check out last month’s column on some of my favorite picks for authentic Southern BBQ in the city.  🔥🍖😋

FEATURED IN THIS ARTICLE: 

Pat’s King of Steaks
9th & Passyunk Ave (Italian Market)
patskingofsteaks.com, Open 24/7

Geno’s Steaks
9th & Passyunk Ave (Italian Market)
genosteaks.com, Open 24/7

Jim’s Steaks
400 South Street (Washington Square West)
jimssouthstreet.com, Reopening soon after 2021 fire

Max’s Steaks
3653 Germantown Ave (North Philly)
maxsteaks.com

Dalessandro’s Steaks
Corner of Henry Ave & Wendover St (Roxborough)
delessandros.com

Spataro’s Cheesesteaks
Stall C7 at Reading Terminal Market (Center City)
@spatarocheesesteaks 

Campos 
214 Market Street (Old City)
camposdeli.com 

Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop 
1 West Girard Ave (Fishtown)
joessteaks.com 

Monster Vegan
1229 Spruce Street (Gayborhood)
themonstervegan.com

Triangle Tavern
1338 S. 10th St (South Philly)
triangletavernphilly.com

Don’t forget to add your own favorites in the Comments below! 

About Eleni Finkelstein 25 Articles
Eleni Finkelstein (aka @gingersliketoeat on Instagram) is a South Jersey and Philadelphia-based food blogger and journalist. She loves traveling, trying new foods, and cheering on Philly sports teams. You can check out her book, "Eat Like a Local: South Jersey" on Amazon.

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