Here in Philly, cheesesteaks, hoagies and roast pork sandwiches are civic icons, tourist draws, cultural obsessions—and, most importantly, beloved meals. A visit to the city would be incomplete without a dive into the distinct, no-forks-required specialties that make this “America’s Best Sandwich City,” as Saveur magazine recently declared. Here’s the lowdown on the holy trio of between-bread Philadelphia:
What Is It?
A cheesesteak—always one word!—consists of a long, crusty roll filled with thin-sliced, freshly sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese. The art of cheesesteak preparation lies in the balance of flavors, textures and what is often referred to as the “drip” factor. For many fans, the definitive “cheese” of choice is Cheez Whiz®, but American and provolone have long established themselves as accepted alternatives. Other common toppings include sautéed onions, cooked mushrooms, ketchup, and hot or sweet peppers.
The origin of the cheesesteak dates back to 1930, when during one fateful lunch hour, South Philly hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri slapped some beef from the butcher on his grill. A cabbie driving by sniffed something delicious, leaned out his window and requested his own. It didn’t take long for news of the creation to spread—taxi drivers came to Olivieri demanding their own steak sandwiches. Soon after, the vendor opened a permanent shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, Pat’s King of Steaks, to sell his invention to the masses. Pat’s grills now sizzle 24 hours a day. So do those of Geno’s Steaks, the rival across the street that opened in 1966, whose late owner claims to have first added cheese to the sandwich. For more than half a century, Pat’s and Geno’s have waged a (mostly) friendly competition, with visitors often ordering from both shops to see which they deem the winner.
Where To Eat One
Nearly every pizza or sandwich shop on any corner of every neighborhood in the city serves up the workaday delicacy. Here are a few notable spots in Center City and beyond, but first a lesson on ordering. Those who crave a cheesesteak must first consider two critical questions: What kind of cheese? Onions or no onions? Those who want Cheez Whiz and onions, ask for a “Whiz Wit.” Those who want provolone without onions, ask for a “Provolone Witout.”
- Cosmi’s Deli has the look of a corner market—and the cheesesteak cred of a champion. Hoagies are no small shakes here either. 1501 S. 8th Street, (215) 468-6093, cosmideli.com
- Dalessandro’s lays claim to the hearts and stomachs of Roxborough and Manayunk residents with its signature steak, chopped much finer than many of its South Philly compatriots. 600 Wendover Street, (215) 482-5407, dalessandros.com
- Geno’s Steaks, across the street from the oldest cheesesteak joint in town, is a formidable, fluorescent-lit competitor that’s gone roll-for-roll with Pat’s for a half century. 9th Street & Passyunk Avenue, (215) 389-0659, genosteaks.com
- Jim’s Steaks has multiple locations, from the circa-1939 West Philly original to an outpost in Delaware County. But it’s the intoxicating smell of fried onions wafting from the South Street outpost (which is owned separately) that draws the most attention. 400 South Street, (267) 519-9253; 431 N. 62nd Street, (215) 747-6617; 469 Baltimore Pike, Springfield, (610) 444-8400, jimssteaks.com
- Pat’s King of Steaks, the undisputed birthplace and home of the cheesesteak, is still owned and operated by the Olivieri family. 9th Street & Passyunk Avenue, (215) 468-1546, patskingofsteaks.com
- Steve’s Prince of Steaks calls Northeast Philly home with two locations, but also serves its regal sandwiches—and famous American cheese sauce—in Center City and the suburbs. 7200 Bustleton Avenue, (215) 338-0985; 2711 Comly Road, (215) 677-8020; 41 S. 16th Street, (215) 972-6090; 1617 E. Lincoln Highway, Langhorne, (215) 943-4640, stevesprinceofsteaks.com
- Tony Luke’s approaches world cheesesteak domination, with franchises from South Philly (the original) to Bahrain. 39 E. Oregon Avenue. (215) 551-5725, tonylukes.com
What Is It?
The hoagie is a built-to-order cold sandwich, akin to what other cities call a “sub” or “hero.” Here, a long, freshly baked roll typically swaddles Italian cold cuts and cheeses, although hoagies can also contain tuna, roast turkey or roasted vegetables—fancy, truffled versions of the aforementioned need not apply. Being cold, the sandwich can be garnished with fresh lettuce, sliced tomatoes, hot or sweet peppers and onions, and finished with a splash of oil and vinegar and a sprinkle of dried oregano. Mayo is fine, too—though some traditionalists claim it’s not.
Accounts of the hoagie’s origin vary greatly. Scholars still debate exactly where and when the sandwich, as well as its unmistakable name, was first conceived. Here are just a few of the hoagie’s origin stories:
- According to a 1967 article in American Speech, the word “hoagie” was first used in the late 19th or early 20th century among the Italian community in South Philadelphia. In these days, the area around that is now Philadelphia International Airport was known as “Hog Island,” and it was the site of a bustling shipyard. The Italian-American laborers who staffed the site, known then by the slang term hoggies, would bring large sandwiches stuffed with meats, cheeses, and vegetables for lunch, and the delicacies so closely associated with them would eventually come to be known as “hoagies.”
- The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual tells of street vendors known as “hokey-pokey men” who sold antipasto salad, meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced long loaves called pinafores, which enterprising hokey-pokey men sliced in half, and filled with antipasto. The “hokey” salesmen influenced the eventual emergence of the term “hoagie.”
- In 1925, a Chester couple opened the A. DiCostanza grocery store, which stayed open past midnight to accommodate gamblers. One night, a hungry card player walked to the back of the store when Catherine DiCostanza was cooking peppers and asked if she would make him a sandwich. She asked what kind of meat he wanted, and he said, “Put everything you have in the case in it.” She took a loaf of Vienna bread, sliced it open and stuffed it. He asked her to add the peppers on too. He left, and just one hour later, DiCostanza’s was full of hungry gamblers wanting the same kind of sandwich, which would later be known as the hoagie.
Where To Eat One
Every Philadelphia neighborhood and suburb has its go-to hoagie shop. Here’s a look at some of the most sought-after iterations in town:
- Campo’s Deli, a family-run institution since 1947, is great for hungry visitors in Philadelphia’s Historic District, thanks to authentic hoagies: Italian (salami, cappicola, pepperoni, prosciutto and provolone) or Italian tuna (oil-packed). 214 Market Street, (215) 923-1000, camposdeli.com
- Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagie serves eaters who like their hoagies well made and their hot peppers hot—right from the heart of the historic Reading Terminal Market. 12th & Arch Streets, (215) 592-7799, readingterminalmarket.org
- Primo Hoagie has expanded extensively from its South Philly roots, elevating the art form with a long list of variants, including 10 takes on their hot-peppered Diablo and a Knuckle Sandwich (sharp provolone and roasted peppers). primohoagies.com
- Wawa is much more than the area’s preferred convenience store: It’s also know for its made-to-order Shortis and Classics, summertime HoagieFest and a record-breaking hoagie served on historic Independence Mall before Independence Day. wawa.com
What Is It?
As old as the cheesesteak but lesser known, the roast pork has gained acclaim as an under-the-radar favorite beloved by in-the-know locals. The sandwich relies on the same, sometimes-sesame-seeded crusty roll of its siblings, but varies its contents when it comes to the flavorful meat on the inside. The succulent pork within is served hot after slow-cooking for hours in a rub that typically features flavors like garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, fennel and even a little bit of wine. It’s then layered with sharp provolone and a scoop of cooked greens, usually sautéed spinach or broccoli rabe—but (never kale).
The roast pork sandwich has roots in the cuisine of the Abruzzese people of Italy, who emigrated en masse to Philadelphia and settled everywhere, especially South Philly. Dominico Bucci was among them, leaving the motherland as a teenager to become one of the city’s first caterers. At first, Bucci simply cooked at home for weddings and special occasions. But in 1930, he built a small wooden shack on a sliver of riverside land leased from the B&O Railroad. There, on Snyder Avenue, he offered stevedores just two menu items: pork or meatball sandwiches (and, on occasion, an old-fashioned combination of the two). Today, his grandson John Bucci, Jr. runs the family business—John’s Roast Pork, named after Dominico’s late son—alongside his mother and wife. It was John, Jr. who added sharp provolone and his mom’s signature sautéed spinach to the sandwich back in 1987, creating a New Italian classic that, in many estimations, deserves top billing alongside the cheesesteak (which, by they way, the Buccis are known for too).
Where To Eat One:
The sandwich that shows off your true Philly food cred comes in versions that are classic and creative. Here are some must-tries.
- DiNic’s Roast Pork draws a line around its Reading Terminal Market booth every day for its signature creation—as well as its rich Italian pulled pork, inspired by owner Joey Nicolosi’s great grandfather’s recipe. 11th & Filbert Streets, (215) 923-6175, tommydinics.com
- John’s Roast Pork is the family-owned and operated originator of the roast pork—and thoroughly worth the trip deep into South Philly to experience. Also known for its cheesesteak—and crusty seeded rolls from longstanding Carangi Bakery. 14 E. Snyder Avenue, (215) 463-1951, johnsroastpork.com
- High Street on Market might be the highest-falutin’ of the bunch, but its 100% homemade version, featuring kimchi-like fermented broccoli rabe on an artisan roll, packs just as much of a punch. 308 Market Street, (215) 625-0988, highstreetonmarket.com
- Paesano’s Philly Style, another relative newcomer, uses shredded suckling pig, long hots, broccoli rabe on a sesame roll for its Arista 152 W. Girard Avenue, (267) 886-9556; 1017 S. 9th Street, (215) 440-0371; 2012 N. Broad Street, (267) 639-3159, paesanosphillystyle.com
- Tony Luke’s, an international Philly sandwich sensation, was founded on its roast pork—which its founders layer with deliciously bitter broccoli rabe instead of sautéed spinach. 39 E. Oregon Avenue, (215) 551-5725, tonylukes.com
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