Hometown Hungers: Philly Cheesesteak Done Right
Few cities are as synonymous with their sandwiches as Philadelphia. After all, one of its most-famous dishes features a shoutout to the city right in its name: the Philly cheesesteak.
The first version of the sandwich was invented by enterprising hot-dog vendor Pat Olivieri in 1930. He heaped grilled meat and onions onto an Italian roll, creating a Philadelphia classic that’s still sold at Pat’s King of Steaks, the shop that he opened on Passyunk Avenue decades ago. The sandwich has evolved through the years, with the addition of provolone cheese and later Cheez Whiz earning it the cheesesteak moniker — and cementing its status as a Philadelphia icon.
The cheesesteak business is still going strong at Pat’s King of Steaks, which is currently helmed by third-generation owner Frank Olivieri Jr. His cheesesteaks feature “thinly sliced rib eye — the real stuff,” he says, noting that there’s no need to chop the meat because it’s already fall-apart tender after a quick turn on the grill. Sauteed onions and Cheez Whiz complete the creation, which is held together by a roll from Aversa’s Bakery.
So beloved is the Philly cheesesteak that many a shop has sprung up over the decades, including Pat’s longtime rival, Geno’s Steaks, where owner Geno Vento has some words of advice about the classic sandwich.
“To make the ultimate cheesesteak, I’d recommend thinly sliced quality rib eye, the freshest white onions, and soft Italian bread with a little crust,” Vento says, noting that the three key cheese options are American, provolone and Cheez Whiz. “We also use a seasoned grill, which really helps bring together all of the flavors to make the ultimate Philly cheesesteak.”
The city is dotted with dozens of other cheesesteak spots that all have fierce fans of their own, with loyalties running as deep as the vats of Cheez Whiz found in their kitchens. Some shops stick to the thinly sliced rib-eye recipe, while others chop their meat while it’s being cooked on the grill. And in addition to the traditional sauteed onions, add-ins such as mushrooms and peppers are standard.
The cult-like status of this beloved sandwich has evolved to the point that it even has its own lingo. Order “one Provolone wit” and you’ll get a cheesesteak stuffed with meat, provolone and sauteed onions. Order “one Whiz wit-out” and you’ll get a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz but no onions. Get it wrong and some places will send you to the back of the line to try again.
For those who want to try a cheesesteak without booking a trip to the City of Brotherly Love, check out Food Network’s gallery of top spots outside Philadelphia serving classic takes on the sandwich.
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Photos courtesy of Pat’s King of Steaks