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To get to the heart of Philadelphia, you have to go through its stomach. Enter the Philadelphia cheesesteak: a venerable Philly tradition of thinly sliced rib-eye beef served on soft Italian-style bread and topped with melted cheese. To follow its trail through the city’s immigrant neighbourhoods and historic alleyways is to uncover and celebrate Philadelphia’s rich past and proud culture.

In South Philadelphia, born and raised
Almost any conversation about cheesesteak in Philadelphia begins with Pat’s versus Geno’s: two long-time South Philly cheesesteak rivals. Loyalty to one or the other mirrors the competitive devotion typically reserved for sports teams. Both turn out traditional cheesesteaks to seemingly endless lines of hungry tourists and Philadelphia locals, with only an intersection and hordes of cheesesteak-eating loyalists between them.

Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks are located on directly opposite street corners, less than one mile from Philadelphia’s infamous Italian Market. Officially named the South 9th Street Curb Market, it is the oldest outdoor market in the United States, dating from 1884. As Italians began to emigrate to the US at the end of the 19th Century, many settled in South Philadelphia where the market took shape to cater to the new community. Today, its streets are still lined with multi-ethnic vendors hawking fresh produce beside Italian cheesemongers and butchers.

Fittingly, it was near the 9th Street market that two Italian brothers co-created the cheesesteak, albeit accidentally. As the story goes, Harry and Pat Olivieri were selling hotdogs from a roadside stand in the early 1930s when culinary inspiration struck. Bored with their daily offerings, Pat asked Harry to buy some beef that they then grilled with onions and piled on a roll. As they were about to dig in, a taxi driver serendipitously arrived, was seduced by the aroma and bought the sandwich for five cents. Philadelphia legend has it that the driver said: “Hey… forget ‘bout those hot dogs, you should sell these.”

Rumour of the meat sandwich spread far and wide, Philadelphians say. And the next day, cabbies from around the city made a beeline to the Olivieri brothers demanding their very own. From that moment on, demand continued to soar by leaps and bounds for the newcomer in this Italian neighbourhood. Cut to 1940 and Harry and Pat finally gave in to unstoppable growth, opening a brick-and-mortar shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue: Pat’s King of Steaks. The same shop – with the same name and the same Olivieri family at the helm – still stands proudly today, a testament to the cheesesteaks’ legacy in South Philly. 

But a cheesesteak is not a cheesesteak without the cheese. In 1949, a one-time employee at Pat’s, Joe Lorenzo, is said to have set the first slice of American cheese on the grilling meat in a quest to try something new. In that gastronomic flash, the steak sandwich became the ubiquitous cheesesteak.

When in Philadelphia, only three cheeses are acceptable to order in a cheesesteak: American, Italian Provolone or Cheez Whiz – a radiantly yellow, processed cheese sauce. The soft consistency of Cheez Whiz means melting it is a breeze, perfect for busy cooks pushing out non-stop orders. And though it is the most popular choice, it is an acquired taste that many either love or hate, akin to Marmite or Spam.

Lean over, dig in
Benches and tables covered by a simple metal awning dot the sidewalks around Pat’s. Peek through the large windows of the fish bowl-like kitchen to get a glimpse of hustling cooks slicing, grilling and assembling countless cheesesteaks at lightening pace. Wait outside on the inevitably long line, practice your order – the menu will guide you – arrive to the open counter, and quicker than you can say “without onions,” a hot cheesesteak will be handed over, wrapped tightly in white wax paper. Unravel the sandwich and before you take that first bite, lean over the paper – lest the bottom end falls out – and dig in.

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