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The History of the Philly Cheesesteak

Pat Olivieri opened a hot dog stand in an Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia around 1930, which he operated alongside his brother Harry. They regularly sold hot dogs to workers in the area, but one day, Pat decided he wanted something different for lunch, so he asked his brother to go to the butcher. When Harry returned with some scraps of beef, Pat cooked them on the grill in a hot dog roll. A cab driver noticed the sandwich and asked for one. Reportedly, Pat only had enough meat to make one sandwich, so he shared it with the driver, who replied that the sandwich was so delicious, he thought Pat and his brother should stop selling hot dogs and start selling the sandwich instead. This marked the invention of the steak sandwich as we know it. (While there were some “beefsteak sandwich” recipes that had already been published in the 19th century, they used different spices and bread). Soon, Pat moved his sandwich operation into a building across the street owned by a man named Joe Butch. That South Philly eatery became known as Pat’s, which still makes their original cheesesteaks today. In 1939, Jim’s opened in West Philly; at first, Jim just sold coffee out of the first-floor window of his home, but he soon got the idea to sell steak sandwiches as well. But what about the cheese? Provolone was first added to the sandwich in the 1940s by an alcoholic manager at Pat’s named Joe Lorenza, or Cocky Joe. This iconic addition marked the invention of the cheesesteak by Pat’s. Notably, the preferred cheese was later changed to Cheez Whiz, although native Philadelphians generally consider American or provolone cheese to be acceptable alternatives. In the 1960s, another eatery famous for its Philly cheesesteaks opened its doors — Geno’s, which is known for making their sandwiches with very thinly sliced rib eye steak. A rivalry between the two institutions developed and, in fact, rivalries and competitions between the top cheesesteak restaurants in Philadelphia still continue. Today, Philadelphia cheesesteaks are considered one of the city’s most iconic foods and locals still line up outside these iconic eateries to order what they simply call “cheesesteaks.”

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