When you hear Philadelphia, the first things that come to mind might be the Liberty Bell, the theme from “Rocky” and the cheesesteak – a delicious sandwich that is a favorite among Philadelphia natives and visitors alike.
What is a cheesesteak?
The Philly cheesesteak is a long bread roll that has been filled with thinly sliced beef mixed with ample melted cheese. Many people also choose to add fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, sweet and hot peppers with a dash of ketchup.
Depending on who is making the sandwich, the seasonings can differ to fit the cook’s unique taste. It is a popular regional fast food that has its roots in the American city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A Philadelphia cheesesteak “is not just bread, meat and cheese coming together”, it is a cultural icon for the people of Philadelphia – a subject of love and loyalty, politics and pride, history and hubris. It’s brought families together and torn them apart (the Olivieris, who founded Pat’s King of Steaks and whose cousin owns Rick’s in the Bellevue’s food court and who have traded lawsuits).
What is the origin of cheesesteak?
We know what the cheesesteak is, but where does this beloved sandwich come from? What stories lurk beneath its processed-cheese shell, nestled between layers of frizzled beef? Like so many iconic regional foods, the cheesesteak original story has been inflated with myth and braggadocio (bragging rights) so many times that it’s difficult to pin down a definitive truth. Even so, there are luckily a few key points that remain uncontested in the sandwich’s history.
The Pre-Sandwich Era
Philadelphia’s Italian population boomed between 1870-1930, as political upheaval in the homeland encouraged many Italians to immigrate to America. Families from Abruzzi, Calabria, Sicily, and more joined Philadelphia’s already-established Ligurian population, settling largely in South Philadelphia.
There, street vendors sold cheap sandwiches out of carts, using inexpensive cuts of meat like tripe, or in some cases, just meat drippings, instead of actual meat. These meals were meant as quick, easy sustenance for the neighborhood’s working-class clientele
Among their peddlers was the son of an Abruzzi government worker who left Italy as Mussolini rose to power. This son would soon invent a sandwich that would change the city forever.
The Philly cheesesteak is an American Dream story of two brothers, and a sandwich that started by chance and evolved, including a feud.
In 1930, the aforementioned son, Pat Olivieri, and his brother Harry were operating a food cart at the corners of 9th Street, Wharton Street, and Passyunk Avenue that dealt primarily in hot dogs and fish cakes. One day in 1933, Pat at the age of 25, bored of eating his own limited menu, implored Harry to visit a nearby butcher and come back with some beef that they could quickly cook up on at their stand for lunch. Harry returned with thinly-sliced ribeye, Pat “frizzled” it up with some onions on the flattop, and crammed it into a bun: voila, the first version of the cheesesteak was born.
As legend has it, on that very day, the intoxicating perfume of beef and onions attracted the attention of a regular customer, a cabbie, who requested this brand-new, off-menu item for himself. The cabbie promptly advised the Olivieri brothers to focus on their new steak sandwich in lieu of fish cakes, and word of mouth about this delicious and previously unknown creation quickly spread.
By 1940, Pat and Harry had saved enough money to turn their cart into a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the same corner, which they called Pat’s King of Steaks. The earliest versions of the Pat’s sandwich involved only thin-sliced beef and onions, served on a crusty Italian loaf from a nearby bakery.
It wasn’t till 1949 that an employee tried adding cheese to the steak, and the idea took off and the cheesesteak was born. In 1952 when Cheez Whiz, a canned cheese sauce topping was created, it became a popular topping for the cheesesteak.
But it was really Olivieri’s marketing techniques that helped launch the cheesesteak from regional specialty to national icon. He was a larger-than-life figure who visited local theaters and concert halls, bringing steak sandwiches to the stars, then luring them back to his shop and taking pictures of them eating. He spread the word about his sandwich all over the world via these celebrities.
A good story has drama to propel it, similar to Minnesota’s own rivalry over the Jucy Lucy, the history of the cheesesteak is no different.
In 1966, Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks mere feet from Pat’s King of Steaks, serving a near-identical menu. Although hundreds of steak sandwich shops had opened across Philadelphia since Pat’s debut, the proximity of Geno’s and the corresponding media attention fueled a rivalry for generations, with owners on both sides publicly denigrating the other’s business.
As cheesesteaks evolved from novelty to mainstream to icon, a market emerged for alternative “cheesesteaks” that could appeal to audiences who avoided steak and cheese for dietary or health reasons.
In the early 1980s, a fellow by the name of Bill Schultz began selling chicken cheesesteaks to appease his calorie-conscious customers at his (now-closed) shop near University of Pennsylvania.
More recently, vegetarian and vegan versions of the sandwich have appeared thanks to suppliers like Vegadelphia, which launched in 2004 selling plant-based versions of beef and chicken for sandwiches—proof that the City of Brotherly Love has room in its heart for cheesesteaks of every color and creed.
The people of Philadelphia refer to it simply as the cheesesteak, while outside of the state, it is usually referred to Philly cheesesteak. The culture of Philadelphia is strong. Many in South Philadelphia have an accent, and would say “Jeez-take” for cheese steak.
The components of a cheesesteak
A proper cheese steak consists of thinly sliced steak fried and placed on an oval or long roll with melted cheese, sometimes grilled onions and sometimes spicy or sweet pepper rings. On some menus, you may get sautéed bell peppers and/or mushrooms. The big difference that the Olivieris have is in the way the steak is cooked. Pat’s chops the meat up and Rick’s keeps them as a slice.
Thin sliced rib eye steak is the first choice, but you may use sirloin, or round steak. Chuck steak or other tough meats are not recommended.
According to Philadelphians, you simply cannot make an authentic Philadelphia cheese steak sandwich without an authentic Philadelphia roll.
At the best cheesesteak restaurants, you will get a choice of American cheese, Cheez Whiz or sliced provolone. The Cheez Whiz is applied on top after the sandwich is assembled using a spatula to put a small swipe on it.
The onions are chopped and caramelized. Also grilled mushrooms and peppers are optional.
Ordering a cheesesteak
Ordering a cheesesteak at Geno’s can be a high-pressure situation for a rookie, as there is a certain no-nonsense lingo that should be applied. For one, know exactly what you want before you reach the front of the line. Skip the small talk. Tell the cashier how many cheesesteaks you would like, your cheese of choice and if you want fried onions.
This ends up being three words: “one wiz without.” (You would like one cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz but without onions.)
At Pat’s, say if you want onions first, and then say the type of cheese. To order like a local, say “wit” or “wit-out,” as this is how “with” and “without” sound in a Philadelphia accent.
Variations of cheesesteak
A chicken cheesesteak is made with chicken instead of beef, sometimes referred to as a chicken Philly.
A pizza steak is a cheesesteak topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese and may be toasted in a broiler.
A cheesesteak hoagie contains lettuce and tomato in addition to the ingredients found in the traditional steak sandwich, and may contain other elements often served in a hoagie.
A vegan cheesesteak is a sandwich that replaces steak and cheese with vegan ingredients, such as seitan or mushrooms for the steak, and soy-based cheese.
The Heater is a spicy variation of a Philly cheesesteak. It’s a cheesesteak that is topped with jalapeños, Buffalo sauce, and jalapeño cheddar. It’s the signature cheesesteak of the Philadelphia Phillies and is served at the Phillies baseball games at Citizens Bank Park.
If you don’t live in Philadelphia, don’t despair because the Philly Cheesesteak is available nationwide now.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 onions , very thinly sliced
- ¼ green bell pepper , sliced thinly
- ¼ red bell pepper , sliced thinly
- 2 large mushrooms , sliced thinly
- 10 oz. steaks , thinly sliced
- Black pepper , freshly ground coarsely
- 5 oz. Cheez Whiz (or 4 thin slices of provolone)
- 2 hoagie rolls or 2 mini individual French baguettes (about 8 inches / 20 cm each), hot
- Dill pickles
- In a large skillet, over high heat, add the olive oil.
- Reduce heat to medium, add the onions and fry for 1 minute.
- Add the peppers and mushrooms, stir and cook until the mushrooms turn black and the onions turn transparent. Stir regularly.
- Add the steak slices and cook for 3 minutes or until the meat is lightly browned. Season with salt and pepper.
- Lay the provolone slices on the meat until they melt. If you use Cheez Whiz, melt it in a water bath before using.
- Slice the bread rolls lengthwise and toast.
- Divide the meat mixture in the two loaves.
- If you use the melted Cheez Whiz, spread one half on each loaf.
- Serve with a dill pickle.