Philadelphia is known as the Birthplace of America. It was here that the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed, the American flag sewn and the nation’s first public library, post office and hospital established. But for many, the city’s greatest contribution to society is a simple sandwich: the cheesesteak.
According to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corporation, eating a cheesesteak ranks among the top things tourists want to do in Philadelphia, right up there with visiting the Liberty Bell.
“The cheesesteak is known all over the world,” says Carolyn Wyman, author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book. “It’s even considered one of the most important things about Philadelphia. Some would argue that it is the city’s greatest contribution to world culture. Well, at least after democracy.”
The “steak,” as the sandwich is known locally, made its official debut in 1930 when South Philly hot-dog vendor Pat Olivieri, tired of selling and eating hot dogs every day, decided to fry up some sliced steak and onions and put them on a hot-dog bun. When cheese was added about 10 years later, the iconic cheesesteak was officially born.
“Pat’s signature sandwich is a cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz and onions,” says Frank Olivieri, Jr., grandnephew of Pat and current owner of Pat’s King of Steaks, the namesake restaurant that has been family-owned and operated from the start. “We also buy the best rib-eye possible in the world. We use the freshest ingredients, fresh bread, fresh meat, the best onions you can buy. All that together makes a quality sandwich. And fortunately, for 81 years, Pat’s has been doing the same thing. We’ve never swayed from our original recipe.”
Today, visitors and locals still flock to that same South Philly locale where Pat originally sold his sandwiches: a simple white clapboard open-air stand on a small triangle of land at the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk Streets. Every day, rain or shine, 24 hours a day, you’ll find a line of hungry carnivores waiting for their turn to try Pat’s fresh rib-eye slathered in Cheese Whiz. On weekends, warm summer nights and after Phillies games, the wait can be up to an hour long. Across the street, a similar line can be found at Geno’s. This flashy stand, with its colorful façade and neon signage opened in the 1960s, and the area has since been referred to as the Fertile Crescent of cheesesteak culture, according to Wyman.
“That triangle is a fun place to go on a summer night,” says Wyman. “It’s like an outdoor party scene. It’s kind of like [Philly’s] boardwalk in a way, especially in the summer because of its outdoor seating, where you can see and be seen. And if the Phillies win, you can see the fireworks going up in the distance.”
For more than 40 years, the two stands—Pat’s and Geno’s—have waged a public battle to win the title of best cheesesteak in town. But as the long lines at both establishments show, there’s more than enough steak for everyone.
“You can say all you want, you can yell up and down that you love Pat’s or you hate Pat’s, but if it wasn’t for his family, there would be no cheesesteak,” says Tony Luke Jr., owner of Tony Luke’s, another famous South Philly steak stand. “Frank deserves the respect and the props that he gets for his family creating something out of nothing that has become not just a Philadelphia institution, but a world phenomenon. It’s become America’s great sandwich. And there’s nothing that any rivalry or anyone can say that can take that away from him.”
Luke is the baby of Philly’s cheesesteak scene. Opened on February 3, 1992, Tony Luke’s stand didn’t even sell steaks originally. But Luke acceded to customer demand, and in 1994, his restaurant won Philadelphia magazine’s Best of Philly award for its cheesesteak.
“When we opened, there were eight million cheesesteak shops, and we were eight million and one. And we’re totally out of the way,” says Luke. “But now when you talk about Philadelphia, you talk about Pat’s, Geno’s, Jim’s [a local chain dating back to 1939, with four art-deco diner-esque restaurants throughout the city] and Tony Luke’s. And that was an uphill battle, considering that those guys have been around for more than 60 years.”
Today, Olivieri and Luke are the faces of the Philly cheesesteak. Turn on just about any Food Network show that features the sandwich, and you’ll find one or both of them talking about the business. Luke has been featured on Dinner Impossible, Man vs. Food, Throwdown with Bobby Flay and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. And Luke and Olivieri even faced off against each other on Food Wars. (For the record, Pat’s won.)
Whether you like your steak “wit” or “witout” (with or without onions), with Whiz, provolone or American, there’s no denying the fact that Philadelphians remain fiercely loyal to their favorite steak stand. From Johnny Hot’s in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood, to Spataro’s in Reading Terminal, to Chubby’s in Roxborough, even to Chick’s in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the Claymont Steak Shop in Claymont, Delaware, the cheesesteak is a part of the fabric of Philadelphia.
But with so many choices, how does a visitor know where to go to get the best steak?
“The best cheesesteak is the one that you like best,” says Luke. “So if you really want to experience the cheesesteak, go to Tony Luke’s, go to Pat’s, go to Geno’s, go to Jim’s, go to Steve’s [Prince of Steaks]. Go to as many cheesesteak places as you can, and I promise that when you’re done, you’ll have a favorite that fits your flavor profile. Try them all and find whatever one works for you. That is the best cheesesteak.”
Originally published in the June 2011 online edition of AAA World.
Photos courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.