The Humble Italian-American Origins Of Philly Cheesesteaks

It's a safe bet to admit that the American culinary landscape would be very different without the contributions of Italian immigrants. They came in droves, more than four million between 1880 and 1924, to escape poverty in Sicily and southern Italy. They formed neighborhoods in large cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia, bound together by a common language and identity. They brought their recipes and adapted them to suit the availability (or unavailability) of ingredients, to give us dishes like Italian wedding soup, chicken parmigiana, or muffuletta. Sometimes these foods came about by accident, as is the case with Philly cheesesteaks.

What started at a humble hot dog cart in south Philadelphia grew into the iconic sandwich that defines the city. As it was told to Philadelphia Magazine, the originator of the cheesesteak, Pat Olivieri, was an Italian-American making his living selling hot dogs from a cart near the Italian Market in the 1930s. Craving something other than a hot dog for lunch, he sent his brother out to get some meat. They grilled some beef and topped it with onions on a hot dog roll. A cab driver thought it looked better than the hot dogs and wanted one. The cab driver convinced Olivieri to forget about hot dogs and sell the beef sandwiches, and Pat's King of Steaks was born.

Philly cheesesteaks weren't meant to have cheese on them

Eventually, the idea caught on, and Jim's Steaks opened in West Philly in 1939, and then Geno's Steaks in the 1960s. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pat never intended to put cheese on the sandwich so that his Jewish friends could still come by and eat one. However, cheese was added to the steak sandwiches sometime around 1950 at Pat's and a decade later at Jim's, according to Philadelphia Magazine. There are only three kinds of cheese you'll find on a cheesesteak — Cheez Whiz is the preferred cheese for most, but American or provolone are also acceptable. But whatever you do, do not order it with Swiss cheese.

What started as different Italian-American families opening shops and stands around Philadelphia is now a changing landscape as different immigrant populations have come into the city. And there are now different approaches to the cheesesteak to accommodate vegetarians and vegans who still want the Philly cheesesteak experience. However, much like Rao's, which has been a family-owned institution in New York City since 1896,  Pat's King of Steaks is still owned and operated by the Olivieri family, ensuring that the best cheesesteaks in America are still in Philly.