The Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich: A History in Gooey Goodness

You know what a Philly cheesesteak sandwich tastes like, but do you know how it originated? Rumors and myths abound, so it can be hard to get to the truth. Luckily, historians have pieced together the basic facts. 

The notorious snack was born in South Philadelphia in the 1930s. It has evolved since then, but it’s still as delicious as ever. 

Want to learn more about Philly’s most famous sandwich? Keep reading for a brief history of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich and its gooey goodness. 

An Italian Invention

In the 1930s, working-class Italian immigrants often bought their meals from street carts in South Philadelphia. Hot dogs and sandwiches piled high with cheap cuts of meat dominated the menus. 

Cart operator Pat Olivieri and his brother, Harry, sold hot dogs and fish cakes to their hungry neighbors. One day in 1932, Pat felt like eating something different. He sent Harry to pick up some cheap beef from a butcher shop around the corner. 

Harry came back with ribeye, and the rest is history! Pat chopped and “frizzled” the meat on the grill with some onions, then stuffed it inside a loaf of Italian bread. 

A few regular customers, including a cab driver, smelled the beef and wanted it instead of their normal orders. The news of their invention traveled fast around the city. Soon people were lining up for Pat’s Philly Steaks. 

From Sidewalk to Shop

By 1940, the brothers had enough money to open a permanent location. They called it Pat’s King of Steaks, and they served their ribeye and onion creations on crusty Italian bread from a nearby bakery. 

Pat was a marketing genius, traveling the city to hand out sandwiches to local celebrities. This resulted in hundreds of free endorsements that helped his business thrive. 

Please Explain the Cheese

Philly cheesesteak sandwiches were served without dairy for years. Then, an employee at Pat’s added Provolone cheese to his own lunch. Customers noticed and wanted the same. 

The popularity of adding cheese to the classic steak and onion sandwich spread across the city. By the 1960s, competing restaurants were offering a choice of American cheese, Provolone, or Cheeze Wiz. 

Of course, Pat Olivieri’s nemesis has a different story. Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks a few doors down from Pat’s King of Steaks in 1966. He claims he was the first to add cheese to the cheesesteak sandwich, but most Philly residents side with Pat. 

Modern Cheesesteak Sandwich

Today, there are hundreds of cheesesteak shops across Philadelphia, America, and the world. Each puts its own unique spin on cheesesteak sandwich ingredients. 

You can choose your favorite cheese, or add toppings like peppers, crunchy fried onions, and mushrooms. 

Los Angeles is home to Boo’s, a restaurant that sells cheesesteak sandwiches in Koreatown and Silver Lake. Check it out if you’re in the area. 

There are also alternative cheesesteak sandwiches for vegetarians and vegans. They feature plant-based meat, dairy-free cheese, and a variety of healthy vegetables on top.

Honor the History of Philly’s Favorite Sandwich

The cheesesteak sandwich is such a beloved part of Philadelphia’s history, the city chose to honor Pat and Harry. There is now a plaque outside the original location of Pat’s King of Steaks to mark their important culinary contribution. 

You can honor them too. Eat Philly cheesesteaks everywhere you go and remember these cheesesteak sandwich facts to share with friends. 

If you enjoyed this article about the history of cheesesteak sandwiches, please check out some of the other great content on our site. 

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