The History of the Philly Cheesesteak and Where to Find One
When it comes to Philadelphia icons, the cheesesteak ranks up there with the Liberty Bell and the “Rocky” steps. This humble sandwich combines classic Italian and American flavors for a mashup that’s hearty, heartwarming, and unique to Philadelphia. Read on to learn the story behind the Philly Cheesesteak—and where the locals go to get their fix.
Who Invented the Cheesesteak?
While different parts of the cheesesteak’s history have been debated over the years, the original origin story is something Philadelphians agree on. The story begins one afternoon in 1930, when a hot dog vendor named Pat Olivieri decided to switch up his regular lunch routine.
Olivieri ordered some thinly sliced ribeye steak from a local butcher and cooked the steak on his hot dog grill. He put the meat on an Italian roll and added some onions. One of Olivieri’s regulars, a cab driver, stopped by for his daily hot dog and noticed Olivieri’s sandwich. He asked Olivieri to make him one, and the rest is history.
Word of mouth spread, and soon the cab driver and other locals were lining up daily for Olivieri’s steak sandwich. Eventually, Olivieri gave up the hot dog cart and opened his own restaurant—Pat’s King of Steaks—where the sandwich continued to grow in popularity. Today, the stand draws visitors from around the world, all eager to try one of our country’s most famous dishes.
Something you might notice about this tale is that the original cheesesteak wasn’t made with cheese at all. The first person to add cheese is still a hotly debated topic (we’ll discuss the most common theory later). However, the sandwich itself is Olivieri’s creation—one that is still proudly carried on by his family today.
This humble sandwich combines classic Italian and American flavors for a mashup that’s hearty, heartwarming, and unique to Philadelphia.
What is a Philly Cheesesteak?
As the name implies, the classic Philly Cheesesteak has two key ingredients: cheese and steak. Specifically, the sandwiches are made with a mild cheese (usually American, provolone, or Cheez Whiz) and the same thinly sliced steak that Olivieri favored nearly a century ago. The sandwiches are still typically served on a fresh Italian roll (rolls from Amoroso’s are a local favorite).
Onions are the classic cheesesteak topping, though some restaurants get creative and offer mushrooms, peppers, and other veggies. If you’re not into onions, you can order a “whiz without” (that is, a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz, hold the onions) and no one will mind.
Where to Find a Philly Cheesesteak
On the hunt for the perfect cheesesteak? These Philly favorites are the first places you should look. However, this is by no means a complete list. Great cheesesteaks exist all around the city, so don’t be afraid to explore.
The original home of the Philly Cheesesteak is still serving sandwiches. This South Philly staple is arguably the most famous cheesesteak shop in the world. The shop is still run by the Olivieri family, who has kept their original menu the same over the years. Pat’s is open 24/7, only closing for Thanksgiving and Christmas each year.
Geno’s Steaks was opened in 1966 by Joey Vento—directly across the street from Pat’s King of Steaks. Over the years, the two restaurants have maintained a friendly cheesesteak rivalry. Geno’s claims to be the first restaurant to put cheese on these sandwiches, but this is up for debate. Either way, their sandwich is one of Philly’s favorites. Locals definitely have an opinion on whether Pat’s or Geno’s makes the best cheesesteak.
Fans of the “Rocky” franchise will remember Max’s Steaks from “Creed” I and II. However, this restaurant is more than just a piece of movie trivia—it’s a landmark in its own right. Known for their massive cheesesteaks (start by ordering a half size or bring a friend to share your sandwich), Max’s has been a neighborhood staple for years.
Dalessandro’s might be small, but their sandwiches pack big flavor. If you like your cheesesteaks “with” (with onions, that is), Dalessandro’s onions are freshly sliced and sauteed to order, adding the perfect sour crunch to your sandwich. They also offer numerous types of peppers and other fresh toppings so customers can make the classic cheesesteak their own. Dalessandro’s serves a variety of burgers and hoagies too, so be sure to explore the rest of their menu after you try the cheesesteak.
If you want to customize your sandwich beyond the basic cheesesteak, Cleavers is known for its creative menu with artisanal offerings. However, don’t let this “fancy” place fool you—Cleavers knows how to properly cook a cheesesteak. It’s a great stop for diners who want a classic Philly dish with a twist.
Where to Find a Vegan Cheesesteak
Meat-eaters aren’t the only ones who deserve a great cheesesteak. Blackbird pizzeria offers a plant-based version of the classic sandwich that’s kosher, vegan-friendly, and completely delicious. Blackbird’s vegan cheesesteak is a fan favorite because it mimics the flavors of a genuine cheesesteak. Their secret ingredients? Well-seasoned seitan and a house-made vegan “Cheez Whiz” spread that tastes like the real thing. The pizzeria sells plenty of other plant-based Italian dishes (including pizza, of course), so be sure to come hungry.