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Regional Cheese Cuisine: The Philly Cheesesteak

Join intern Virginia on her journey to discover how different regions of the US use local cheeses to improve local cuisine. From Vermont cheddar to Wisconsin Colby and on to California Monterey Jack, she’ll hit the iconic cheese destinations of America and introduce you to regional delicacies and recipes along the way. If you missed it, don’t forget to read last week’s post on Vermont cheddar and apples.

This week on Regional Cheese Cuisine we are going to the Mid-Atlantic – specifically Philadelphia – for the Philly cheesesteak sandwich. While researching for this post, I asked a friend from Philadelphia for her thoughts on the best place to get a cheesesteak. It turns out that people from Philadelphia don’t just have thoughts on the cheesesteak, they have a passion for this sandwich. The Visit Philly website says that “cheesesteaks are a civic icon, a tourist draw and a cultural obsession. Often imitated around the world, the cheesesteak is rarely duplicated successfully outside of Philadelphia.” It was no easy feat narrowing down the places to get one and the types of cheese involved. 

First, let’s talk about what this delicious sandwich really entails. Most cheesesteaks are on a long crusty roll that can easily sop up any juices. The meat is sautéed ribeye beef made on a flat top. Then comes the cheese. There are several cheeses that are considered appropriate for the Philly cheesesteak: provolone, American, and (dare I even mention the name?) Cheese Wiz, which is actually the most popular. Toppings other than these three simple ingredients are bonuses and differ by restaurant, but often include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, ketchup, and hot or sweet peppers.

The cheesesteak is such a cultural icon in Philadelphia that a specific etiquette exists for ordering. Because the best cheesesteaks come with long lines, it is customary to know what you want before you order and have your payment method handy while ordering so as to not to hold up the line. When you get to the front of the line you have two questions to answer: 1) What kind of cheese do you want? 2) Do you want onions? Both of these questions can be responded to with a single answer: “Wit” means “Yes, I would like Cheese Whiz and onions” or “Widout” meaning “Yes, I would like cheese, but no onions.” Then you may ask for any other toppings or specify your cheese preference. Be prepared: if the guy behind the counter thinks you’re holding things up, you may well be sent to the back of the line to contemplate your choices.


The first cheesesteak was made in South Philly in 1930. A hot dog vender named Pat Olivieri, along with his brother Harry, get the credit. Olivieri decided to put some beef from the butcher on his grill and a nearby cab driver stopped because of the amazing smell. As the story goes, word spread among the cabbies and the next day Olivieri was bombarded with requests for the steak sandwich. Having gone from hot dog vendor to sandwich maker, Olivieri became a restaurateur when he opened Pat’s King of Steaks. Only many years later did he add the cheese to his famous recipe. Pat’s grill is still open today, making sandwiches for hordes of hungry Philadelphians.

Distinguished Restaurants

As I mentioned before, choosing the best Philly cheesesteak is a hotly contested issue, but, with the help of three websites listing their top picks and a Philadelphia-based foodie friend, I have compiled my list. Sadly, I’ve never yet gone to Philadelphia, so this is my dining wish list for when I get the chance to visit the City of Brotherly Love.

1) John’s Roast Pork

Photo Credit: Rianvented
Photo Credit: Rianvented

Though it may be small, it is mighty. Its secret weapon in the cheesesteak war is the crunchy, seed crusted bun and its James Beard Award for American Classics. They serve two types of provolone there (no Cheese Whiz) and most prefer the sharp. They also make a mean roast pork sandwich… who would have guessed? Cash only.

John’s Roast Pork
14 Snyder Avenue

2) Pat’s King of Steaks

Photo Credit:B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia
Photo Credit:B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia

The one and only. Still owned and operated by the Olivieri family who created the first cheesesteak. It is efficient, but don’t expect special service. If you follow the directions on the wall, your delicious cheesesteak will be ready as you finish paying. Both provolone and Cheese Whiz are available and recommended.

Pat’s King of Steaks
1237 E. Passyunk Avenue

3) Tony Luke’s

Photo Credit: J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia
Photo Credit: J. Varney for Visit Philadelphia

Located on what some call a “dull” stretch of road, this no-nonsense eatery provides some solid award-winning sandwiches. Order at the window and enjoy your cheesesteak at a picnic table. Both provolone (sharp is recommended) and Cheese Whiz are available. Plan on generous portions.

The Original Tony Luke’s
39 E. Oregon Avenue.

4) Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies

Photo Credit: Rianvented
Photo Credit: Rianvented

These cheesesteaks have been called “sinfully greasy” in the best possible way. Located northwest of the city, unlike most of the other cheesesteak joints, Dalesandro’s sets itself apart by seasoning their grill top with fat before they start making sandwiches.

600 Wendover Street

5) Sonny’s Famous Cheese Steaks & Burgers

Photo Credit: Sergio S.
Photo Credit: Sergio S.

A newcomer to the cheesesteak scene, this location only opened in 2000 and has been creating “healthier” cheesesteaks by frying the meat in its own juices rather than in oil. With amazing service, large portions, and both a provolone or Cheese Whiz option it’s hard to beat.

Sonny’s Famous Cheese Steaks
228 Market Street

6) Jim’s Steaks

Photo Credit: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia
Photo Credit: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia

Don’t be deterred by the line that can occasionally wraps around the corner for these fantastic cheesesteaks. Heavy on onion and loaded with flavor this is the first on the list where the American cheese is recommended.

Jim’s Steaks
431 North 62nd Street

7) Campo’s Deli

Photo Credit: Campo's
Photo Credit: Campo’s

This is the most visitor-friendly location because it’s a mere three blocks from the Liberty Bell and the Independence Visitor Center. It has a variety of sandwich offerings but the cheesesteak is a solid example of a Philly classic.

Campo’s Deli
214 Market Street

DIY Cheesesteak Recipe

Philly Cheesesteaks depend on their cheese

Check out this recipe from our Best Cheeses 2014 issue to make your very own Philly Cheesesteak at home

Answer to Win!

This week’s question: Where is your favorite place to get a Philly Cheesesteak? Post your answer in the comments section by Wednesday, October 22, 2014 for a chance to win a FREE issue of culture magazine! You must be located within the continental US to be eligible to win. Good luck!

Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of Selah

Virginia Hyde

Virginia Hyde is a southern girl at heart who just moved to Boston to submerge herself in food - mainly cheese, to be honest. Game for any food-related adventure, festival, or gathering, she is ready to share her passion for cheese with others. Virginia is currently working on a Masters in Gastronomy at Boston University.

2 thoughts on “Regional Cheese Cuisine: The Philly Cheesesteak”

  1. Avatar SICA says:

    Nowhere locally.
    PS – Comments aren’t open on the new post for Regional Cheese Cuisine: Wisconsin Colby

    1. Virginia Hyde Virginia Hyde says:

      SICA- Thank you! I’ll open up the comments.

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