October 11, 2017

Cheesesteak 101: A Primer on Philly's Famous Sandwich

The Who, What, Where & Whiz Of The Philly Cheesesteak

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Max’s Steaks, prominently featured in Creed, the last installment of the Rocky film series, offers a lauded version of the cheesesteak. Photo by VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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A cheesesteak 'Whiz wit' from Tony Luke's. Photo by J. Varney for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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Jim's Steaks on South Street is a popular late-night cheesesteak stop. Photo by J. Fusco for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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Campo's Deli, just blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, ships all over the country. Photo by M. Fischetti for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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Geno's Steaks has been slinging cheesesteaks 24 hours a day for over 50 years. Photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philadelphia
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Just across from Geno's, Pat's King of Steaks claims the title of originator of the cheesesteak. Photo courtesy of VISIT PHILADELPHIA®
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Here in Philly, cheesesteaks are a civic icon, a tourist draw and a cultural obsession. Often imitated around the world, the cheesesteak is rarely duplicated successfully outside of Philadelphia. So what is an authentic cheesesteak and where did it come from? Here’s the lowdown on this region’s favorite sandwich.

What Is A Cheesesteak?:

A cheesesteak is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed rib-eye beef and melted cheese. Generally, the cheese of choice is Cheez Whiz®, but American and mild or sharp provolone are common substitutions. The art of cheesesteak preparation lies in the balance of flavors, textures and what is often referred to as the “drip” factor. Other toppings may include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, ketchup and hot or sweet peppers. Some sandwich shops also offer a cheesesteak hoagie, a hybrid version that combines the cheesesteak with cold hoagie dressings like lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Cheesesteaks are fast, portable and readily available at steak shops, delis, food trucks, pizzerias and even some high-end restaurants throughout the region.

Cheesesteak History:

The cheesesteak made its official debut in 1930, when South Philadelphia hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri slapped some beef from the butcher onto his grill. A taxicab driver noticed the alluring aroma and asked for his own steak sandwich. The next day, as the story goes, rumor of the delicious lunch had spread, and cabbies around the city came to Olivieri demanding steak sandwiches. Soon thereafter, Olivieri opened up a shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, Pat’s King of Steaks, to sell his new creation. Eventually, according to legend, he added cheese to the recipe. Today, Pat’s grills sizzle 24 hours a day, as does circa 1966 Geno’s, the rival shop across the street. For 51 years, the two family-run businesses have waged a friendly competition to win the title of best cheesesteak in town, with Geno’s late founder, Joe Vento, claiming it was he, not Olivieri, who first added cheese to the cheesesteak.

How To Order A Cheesesteak:

Cheesesteak consumption has its own etiquette. When ordering, there are two critical questions to answer: First, what kind of cheese do you want? (Whiz? Provolone? American?) Second, do you want onions? If you want Whiz and onions, request a “Whiz wit.” Not into onions? Then ask for a “Widout.” That will yield a sandwich with cheese and no onions. Next, ask for any other toppings or condiments you desire. Be forewarned: Lines are long, and patience is tested. It’s wise to have your order and money ready to go.

Best Places To Find A Cheesesteak:

Nearly every pizza shop on any corner of every neighborhood in the city serves up the city’s best-known delicacy. Here are a few notable Center City and South Philadelphia spots:

Center City:

  • Chic Rittenhouse Square steakhouse Barclay Prime dishes out the city’s—and possibly the world’s—most expensive cheesesteak. For $120, guests enjoy a gussied-up sandwich stuffed with Wagyu rib-eye, foie gras, truffled cheese whiz and served on a fresh-baked sesame roll. This decadent creation comes, fittingly, with a half bottle of champagne. 237 S. 18th Street, (215) 732-7560, barclayprime.com
  • More famous for its creative menu of hoagies, Campo’s Deli cooks up a respectable traditional cheesesteak, and they ship to other cities all over the country as well. Located just a few blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in Historic Philadelphia, it’s the perfect stop for a post-tour meal. 214 Market Street, (215) 923-1000, camposdeli.com
  • Cheesesteaks get the spotlight at Cleavers, Rittenhouse Square’s ode to the Philly fave. Fillings—whether rib-eye, chicken or veggies—can be consumed via a roll, wrap or bowl, with topping options such as Sriracha aioli, blue cheese dressing, long hots and onion rings. 108 S. 18th Street, (215) 515-3828, cleaversphilly.com
  • In a city famous for its sandwiches, Jake’s Sandwich Board adds an element of creativity to its crowd-pleasing dishes. The cheesesteak, for example, is piled with slow-roasted brisket (not the usual rib-eye) and topped with mild provolone and caramelized onion. 122 S. 12th Street, (215) 922-0102; 125 S. 40th Street, (215) 921-9580, jakessandwichboard.com
  • Jim’s Steaks has four locations, but the classic smell of fried onions wafting down South Street makes that address the most memorable—and the most popular after a late night of partying on the famed strip. 400 South Street, (215) 928-1911, jimssouthstreet.com; 431 N. 62nd Street, (215) 747-6617; Bustleton & Cottman Avenues, (215) 333-5467; 469 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, (610) 544-8400, jimssteaks.com
  • The circa 1892 and always busy Reading Terminal Market houses more than 80 vendors of farm-fresh produce, meats, cheeses, herbs and ready-to-eat meals—from Amish baked goods to Greek fare. It’s also a great spot to feast on Philly’s most famous sandwich: the cheesesteak. By George! Pizza, Pasta & Cheesesteaks, Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks and Spataro’s Cheesesteaks are among the solid options here. 12th & Arch Streets, (215) 922-2317, readingterminalmarket.org
  • Founded in 2000, Sonny’s Famous Steaks offers a fresh, healthier take on the recipe, frying the 100% Angus beef in its own juices rather than in oil. The Historic District shop uses locally baked Amoroso’s rolls and boasts a liberal ordering policy—meaning patrons shouldn’t feel pressured to order the cheesesteak in standard Philly fashion. 228 Market Street, (215) 629-5760, sonnyscheesesteaks.com

South Philadelphia:

  • Although Cosmi’s Deli is a relative newcomer among the cheesesteak contenders, this corner store has won plenty of praise for its rendition of the famous Philly delicacy. It’s even a two-time winner of Philadelphia magazine’s coveted “Best of Philly” award. 1501 S. 8th Street, (215) 468-6093, cosmideli.com
  • It may be across the street from the oldest cheesesteak joint in town, but Geno’s Steaks is a formidable competitor going roll-for-roll with Pat’s for more than 50 years. The key to success for the 24/7 spot? Quality thinly sliced rib-eye steak for maximum juiciness, the freshest of onions and house-made bread. 1219 S. 9th Street, (215) 389-0659, genosteaks.com
  • With a name like Gooey Looie’s, the kitchen isn’t going to skimp on meat. The Pennsport deli plumps up its sandwiches with a beyond-generous helping of steak and cheese that demands many napkins—and sometimes utensils. 231 McClellan Street, (215) 334-7668, gooeylooies.com
  • John’s Roast Pork may not have “cheesesteak” in its name, but this small shack among shopping plazas is frequently named one of the city’s top steak spots. Its secret weapon? A crusty seeded roll. 14 E. Snyder Avenue, (215) 463-1951, johnsroastpork.com
  • The original home of the cheesesteak, Pat’s King of Steaks has been owned and operated by the Olivieri family for 87 years and counting. A 24-hour shop, Pat’s shuts down for only 48 hours each year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. 1237 E. Passyunk Avenue, (215) 468-1546, patskingofsteaks.com
  • The Delaware River Waterfront’s Shank’s Original serves a highly reputed cheesesteak—and an old-school South Philly experience. Wise patrons know to save room for a bite or two of Shank’s famed chicken cutlet sandwich too. 901 S. Columbus Boulevard, Pier 40, (215) 218-4000, shanksoriginal.com
  • Every sandwich at the award-winning Tony Luke’s—now with multiple locations in multiple states—is worth ordering. And although the cheesesteak, made with 100% USDA-inspected rib-eye steak, was not on the restaurant’s original menu, it’s been a top seller ever since it was added six months after opening in 1992. Original location, 39 E. Oregon Avenue, (215) 892-1010, tonylukes.com

Other Neighborhoods:

  • Like South Philadelphia, Roxborough boasts a solid across-the-street cheesesteak shops rivalry: Chubby’s versus Dalessandro’s. At Chubby’s, thin rib-eye is mixed with thin-sliced onions and served on an Amoroso’s roll. They also offer an atypical amount of cheese options: American, provolone, Swiss, pepperjack and Cheez Whiz. 5826 Henry Avenue, (215) 487-2575, chubbyssteaks.com
  • Dalessandro’s Steaks has racked up an enormous amount of accolades since getting into the cheesesteak business a half-century ago. For this Roxborough neighborhood staple, freshness rules, and that’s why they use only the freshest meats, cheeses, produce and bread to make their raved-about creations one sandwich at a time. 600 Wendover Street, (215) 482-5407, dalessandros.com
  • South Street’s beloved Ishkabibble’s has been cooking up cheesesteaks and chicken cheesesteaks since 1979. Other favorites at this walk-up vendor include Ishka fries (with hot peppers and onions) and the original Gremlin, a half-lemonade, half-grape-juice concoction. 337 South Street, (215) 923-4337, philacheesesteak.com
  • In just a few short years, Spring Garden’s Jimmy G’s Steaks has established itself as a key player in the local sandwich game, grilling up classics in chopped and slab formats on Liscio’s rolls. For the adventuresome, there’s also a lamb variation. 695 N. Broad Street, (215) 763-2495, jimmygsteaks.com
  • The staff at Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop has been slinging the classic sandwich since 1949 at its mom-and-pop shop in Northeast Philadelphia. The newer Fishtown location stays true to tradition, serving the 67-year-old recipe with beef or chicken and alongside milkshakes, ice cream sodas and egg creams. 1 W. Girard Avenue, (215) 423-5637; 6030 Torresdale Avenue, (215) 535-9405, joessteaks.com
  • Max’s may be most well known for its star turn in Creed, the seventh and most recent movie in the Rocky film franchise, but for many decades now, it’s been a go-to place for cheesesteaks in the heart of North Philadelphia. 3653 Germantown Avenue, (215) 229-9048
  • Home of the iconic cheesesteak sandwich known as the Schmitter®, Chestnut Hill’s McNally’s Tavern packs its signature creation with sliced beef, extra cheese, fried onions, tomato, grilled salami and secret Schmitter sauce. This family-owned bar has been serving its over-the-top sandwich on a flash-broiled kaiser roll for more than a half-century now. 8634 Germantown Avenue, (215) 247-9736, mcnallystavern.com
  • A food truck without a regular schedule, Philly’s Finest Sambonis requires that its fans pay close attention to social media. The juicy chopped steaks, packed into hollowed-out Liscio’s rolls, make for ideal eating on the go. facebook.com/samboniboys
  • Meat specialists with a Drexel University truck and a brick-and-mortar location in Brewerytown, Spot Gourmet Burgers distinguishes its steaks from the pack with a whopping half pound of house-butchered rib-eye per sandwich. Topped with provolone and grilled onions, it’s a memorable rendition. 2821 W. Girard Avenue; 4300 Powelton Avenue, (267) 930-7370, spotburgers.com
  • Now with four locations in the Philadelphia area, Steve’s Prince of Steaks started in Northeast Philadelphia and expanded to Center City. For 30 years now, owner Steve Iliescu has delivered his signature sandwich on a long, thin roll with just the right chew. 41 S. 16th Street, (215) 972-6090; 7200 Bustleton Avenue, (215) 338-0985; 2711 Comly Road, (215) 677-8020; 1617 E. Lincoln Highway, Langhorne, (215) 943-4640, stevesprinceofsteaks.com

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