Pat’s Steaks Owner Has Some Choice Words for His Haters
Plus, great stories about Michelle Obama, alleged contract killings, and Van Halen.
When people think of Philadelphia, the food they think of is the cheesesteak. And you can’t talk about cheesesteaks without talking about Pat’s King of Steaks, the progenitor of the sandwich that dates back to the 1930s. Here, owner Frank Olivieri talks alleged contract killings, great extravagances, and the toppings you should never, ever put on his sandwiches.
Hi, Frank. I know you’re spending these last days of summer at your big spread in LBI. How’s the beach?
Cold and windy! But I love it down here. Even in the winter.
Your primary residence is still in South Philly, though, right?
For now. My wife, Nancy, and I just bought a condo on Washington Square in the Lippincott that we’re renovating. And we have a place in Florida.
Is it a historical fact that your family invented the cheesesteak?
It has never been disputed! John’s Roast Pork was around in the ’30s, but he wasn’t selling steak sandwiches back then. And Jim’s didn’t come around until 1939. Geno’s was the 1960s.
Is 2023, in fact, the 90th anniversary of the sandwich?
My grandfather told me 1930, but my uncle said it was 1932 or 1933. It could be that 1933 was when they opened the brick-and-mortar in the building we’re in today. My father doesn’t remember. He has Alzheimer’s.
The steak sandwich was actually born out of a hot-dog stand, right?
Yes. My Uncle Pat and my grandpa Harry had a hot-dog stand across from where Pat’s is now. Nobody had refrigeration, so they would all walk or take the trolley to the Italian Market to buy their food for the next couple of days, and people would stop and get hot dogs. One day, my grandfather had a little extra money, and he wanted something different, so he went down the street to a butcher and bought some meat trimmings. He made a sandwich, and then they started making it for themselves regularly. Then this cabdriver wanted to try one. When he did, he told them to forget about hot dogs: “You should sell these.”
How do you think the cheesesteak of 1933 would compare to today’s?
I’m not sure what meat they were using. But you have to remember: This was the Great Depression. Eventually, it morphed into the meat that Pat liked best, which was rib eye. Rib eye and onions on a roll. Nobody is quite sure who was the first to add cheese.
And then you came along in 1964. What was South Philly like in those days?
Awesome. You could run around and play in the streets. No one would steal your bike. You could pull the fireplug and play in the water, even though my mother, Ritamarie, who is now 83, would tell us we were going to get polio from that water.
The Italian Market area has seen so many changes, and there are still plenty of South Philadelphians who aren’t impressed.
I love the new Market. The fact that you can walk down the street and get Thai food, Mexican food, Cambodian food — listen, there was a time when the Market wasn’t there. Italians immigrated and established it and became the workers. Now, their heirs don’t want to do it, for whatever reasons. Someone had to take over, and people from other cultures did, and it’s great. The worst thing would be if some developer came in and built apartments.
Did you have a wealthy upbringing?
We were wealthier than most on our block. But there were people in our neighborhood who owned funeral parlors, and they were far wealthier.
I went to Holy Spirit from K to sixth. But then my mom put my sisters and me into Friends Select, on the Parkway. My parents gave me so many amazing things, but I have to say, the thing I appreciate the most is my Friends Select education.
The only processed food I eat is Cheez Whiz.”
When did Pat’s go from a corner store to this sort of juggernaut?
Pat’s was always a neighborhood destination. It’s been in people’s DNA for so many decades. They would go to ball games and take their kids here, and then the kids would grow up and do the same. But what really put us on the map in a national way was Rocky. People would come to Philly and want to see the places where Rocky was filmed. We have a plaque in the ground from where Rocky stood in the movie. Basically, Pat’s is a mecca for so many people for so many reasons.
You’ve always been an outdoor operation. Given that, how much did the pandemic impact business?
COVID was horrible for so many businesses, but we were already established as a walk-up outdoor place. Before COVID, we started using Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub. All of that skyrocketed during COVID. And then there’s Goldbelly. I was very reluctant to do a deal with Goldbelly, but I started with them in August of 2019 to deliver our steaks nationwide. At the height of the pandemic, we were delivering 10,000 sandwiches a week on Goldbelly alone.
When I interviewed you in 2017, you were proud of the fact that your cheesesteaks were still $10. What are they now?
[Laughs] Were they really that cheap back then? They are $15 now, including taxes. The price of product has escalated immensely. The soybean oil we use for cooking the steaks went from $15 for 35 pounds to $75 for the same container. Cheez Whiz cases went from $54 to $124.
I was very understanding during the pandemic about paying more, and I would tip lots on takeout orders. But — and I’ve heard a lot of people pose the same question: Are some restaurants gouging at this point because they can? I just paid $25 for a very mediocre cheese pizza from a place in Delco. Does it really cost them that much more for salt, water, flour, and the crappy cheese they use?
The crappy cheese, no. But the expensive cheeses, yes. The prices on certain quality products will never come down.
There’s always been this perceived feud between Pat’s and Geno’s. Real, or just good publicity?
Joey Vento from Geno’s was the hardest-working man in cheesesteaks. He and my father and mother and Joe’s wife all grew up together. When it came to business, if he was on the street, he refused to touch foot on my pavement. But if they saw each other at a restaurant, they would fight to pay each other’s bill.
Joey and Geno’s got a lot of flak for the “Speak English” sign he put up and refused to take down. What was he actually like?
He was a tyrant at 9th and Wharton and a gentle guy otherwise. I used to affectionately call him “Uncle Joey.” I told him, “If you ever wanna retire and sell me this place, I’ll keep it the same. I’ll keep the name, and I’ll keep all your pictures up. And we can dig a tunnel from your place to my place to the bank.” [laughs] He said, “I’ll never sell to you.” It wouldn’t surprise me if he put in his will to his son Geno that he’s never allowed to sell it to me.
What’s the most popular cheese at Pat’s?
Whiz. By far. By a factor of two. Then American or Cooper sharp. Then provolone. Some people are afraid to try the Whiz — “Ew, it’s not real cheese!” — but once I get them to try it, they’re sold. It’s just a better sandwich. There’s a way that the Whiz mixes with the onion, steak and bread.
Earlier, you talked about these nationwide deliveries. I’m sorry, but I feel like this would have to be a disappointing sandwich when I got it in California.
Lots of people take extra sandwiches to go from Pat’s and heat them up the next day in the toaster oven. And it’s really good! I’ll have them in my fridge in LBI. In the oven at 250 degrees, tented with tinfoil, Cheez Whiz on the side. Once the meat heats just through, you pour the Cheez Whiz on top. People who visit me love it. The Goldbelly is like that.
Ninety or whatever years later, this shop must basically run itself. How often are you there?
Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I do admin work. I don’t work the grill anymore. I leave that to the younger guys who like to stand up for 12 hours at a time.
Do you come back at all during the winter? Or are you in Florida three months solid?
Oh, no. I come back a lot. Often up and back in the same day. I catch the 7 a.m. flight out of Palm Beach, and I’m back in Florida in plenty of time for dinner.
When I want to go old-school, I do just meat, fried onion, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Otherwise, Cheez Whiz, meat, raw onions. When I go to my crematorium, they’re ordered to throw a few of those in there with me.”
How many steaks have you eaten in your lifetime?
Oh. My. God. I used to eat them only on the days that ended in “y.” [laughs] If I was working at the store, I would eat one or two, and sometimes three if I came back late at night.
What’s your standard order?
When I want to go old-school, I do just meat, fried onion, salt, pepper and hot sauce. Otherwise, Cheez Whiz, meat, raw onions. When I go to my crematorium, they’re ordered to throw a few of those in there with me.
Well, you mentioned death, so I have to bring this up: You had some major health problems not long ago.
Yes. I had an aortic stenosis. It wasn’t caused by cheesesteaks. It was a birth defect. Eventually, my doctor told me I needed a new valve, and the doctors at Penn saved my life. This was no easy surgery. They didn’t go up through the groin. They cracked my chest open. Recovery was very hard.
A few years prior to your surgery, you raved to me about your lavish dinners at Parc, the Saloon, Vetri, Michael Schulson’s restaurants. Lots of champagne and many old-fashioneds. Have you chilled out at all?
To a degree. I don’t have a taste to drink that much anymore. But we still enjoy meals at great restaurants. The only processed food I eat is Cheez Whiz.
I know you had to postpone this interview because yesterday, you found yourself cooking for a crowd. What did you make?
We have an amazing outdoor kitchen in LBI. I got some gorgeous tuna off the boat. Served it with udon, beautiful scallions from our garden. I also made some pizzas with vegetables from our garden and a Greek salad using tomatoes, topping that with grilled shrimp. And because I found some crabs in our traps, I made some crab sauce that I’ll be eating today. I wanted to make ice cream but didn’t feel like going inside to do that.
You entertain quite a bit in LBI. Do you ever get tired of it?
Never. Once my eyes are closed, I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I’m trying to get in as much as possible before that day comes.
Do you own anything other than Pat’s?
I’m exploring expansion. Not a franchise. A licensed Pat’s Steaks. Franchises come with all sorts of rules and regulations. I’ll be able to be more involved than if I had a franchise. I’m looking at places like Penn State, Ann Arbor and Miami.
I know from previous interviews that you personally have never opened another Pat’s, so this expansion thing is a major development. But others have tried their hands at Pat’s, and you once told me privately that one of these efforts resulted in someone taking a hit out on you. Can we discuss that?
[Pauses] That is a true story, but the person in question is still alive, so let’s not go there.
Let’s talk after they’re dead! Much easier to write negatively about people after they’re no longer with us.
[Laughs] They are almost dead. I’ll let you know. But yeah, one relative opened a store in A.C. that didn’t last long. Another tried to open up a Pat’s Steaks franchise. That didn’t work out so well. My cousin Ricky opened a Pat’s on South Street. That didn’t work. He opened something at Reading Terminal Market and put a sign up that said something like “From the Original Pat’s Family.” I told him: “You can’t have that sign up. Pat’s is my registered trademark.” I started proceedings to sue him. It wasn’t personal. It was just business.
You’re a wealthy man. Quite the home in LBI, a place in Florida, a new condo in Washington Square. Oh, and you once told me you bought a $10,000 espresso maker for your kitchen counter. Any other extravagances?
[Laughs] I just bought a 17-foot sailboat. Love to sail. I have a Chris-Craft motorboat. I have a car collection. Right now, I’m sitting here looking at my ’96 Carrera with 33,000 original miles. I have cars in Florida. Oh, I’m also looking at my Vespa with all of 29 miles on it. [laughs]
At this point, my sister would ask me if you’re single, which you’re obviously not. How did you meet Nancy? June 5th of 2015. She was walking with a friend I knew. I asked her to sit down. My friend said, “Frank is the Cheesesteak King of Philadelphia.” Nancy laughed and said, “Nobody goes to Pat’s and Geno’s!” I got her phone number. Then I hired her to do PR and such for Pat’s. The sweetest revenge, because now she has to tell everybody that Pat’s is the best.
People trash-talk Pat’s all the time: hot garbage! Tourist trap! Honestly, do you think the cheesesteak is good?
Well, it’s my favorite. Okay, so Stephen Starr serves one for $140. Is it good? Uh, it’s “okay.” Actually, here’s a story I need to tell you. Nancy and I were out in California and went with friends to the French Laundry. They google you before you get there. The meal at French Laundry was supposed to be 10 courses. Well, we got 11.
The server comes up to me and says, “I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen them do that for anybody.” And she puts in front of us a cheesesteak on brioche with Wagyu, caramelized onions. They made their own Cheez Whiz. Turns out the chef who sent it out was from Broad and Dickinson. And he just had to make me his French Laundry version of a cheesesteak. Amazing! I don’t think the guys from Angelo’s and Jim’s and wherever else have ever had a cheesesteak made for them at the French Laundry.
And I can get a Pat’s cheesesteak at 3 a.m.
[Laughs] Nancy and I actually just did a YouTube video. We drove over to John’s Roast Pork at 6 p.m. So they have the best cheesesteak? Closed! A little later we went to Angelo’s. Best cheesesteak? Closed! We went to other places, too, and couldn’t get any of the “best” cheesesteaks. The best cheesesteak is the one you can get when you want to get it.
Is “tourist trap” an unfair criticism for Pat’s?
The tourist-trap thing blows my mind. It comes from all these brave people who hang behind keyboards while they’re living in their mom’s basement, playing Dungeons & Dragons. They say things like, “Real Philadelphians don’t eat Cheez Whiz!” You’ve never left your mom’s basement. Great. You’re a level-five dragonmaster. Great. How do you know what people like and what people eat?
What topping do you cringe at?
Bell peppers and mushrooms. Drives me crazy. A cheesesteak is cheese, onions, meat and bread. That’s it! Anything else is a “designer sandwich.”
That you’re a huge destination for drunk people at 2 a.m. brings problems. In the past few years, there have been two major fights outside Pat’s that resulted in deaths. Do I need to be worried when I come down there to get my midnight cheesesteak fix?
No. Absolutely not. The police station is a block and a half away. Unfortunately, we had two isolated incidents. It’s very safe. We have been here for at least 90 years! Have we had some incidents? Sure. Because people don’t know how to conduct themselves.
Do you have a responsibility to control what happens on the street and sidewalk around your shop?
It’s a public space, and unfortunately, Philadelphia is experiencing a dark time everywhere, in every neighborhood. This violence is senseless. You can’t go through a green light without stopping to look if there are 10,000 people on motorcycles and ATVs about to blast through the intersection. I hate to say it, but the city feels lawless.
Something tells me you’re not a big fan of Mayor Kenney. What’s your grade for him?
Is there a grade lower than F-minus? And it’s certainly not just because of the stupid soda tax that I’m paying $75,000 a year for. He’s been an absentee mayor since he was elected.
Will you ever retire, or will you drop dead at Pat’s Steaks?
If somebody with deep pockets can write the check, I see a 67-foot sailboat in my future, living in the Virgin Islands. I almost had somebody write that check at one point.
I’m sure you’re not going to give me an exact number. What’s it between?
Let’s say between $30 million and $60 million.
Not to be morbid, but we already talked about crematoriums, alleged contract killings, and major open-chest surgery. What do you hope people will say about you when you’re gone, hopefully decades from now?
I hope they will say, “He was an honest, philanthropic, good guy.”
And what do you think they’ll really say?
He was just a broken-down steak maker. [laughs] But it’s okay. I’m living my best life.
Celebrities and Their Cheesesteaks
Whizzy encounters with the famous — and infamous — as told by Frank himself
“I was the one at the window when he comes up and says, ‘Should I get Swiss cheese?’ I said, ‘You shouldn’t. I would suggest Whiz.’ There was a Daily News reporter standing there, and he wrote that I ‘advised him that here in Philly, we don’t much like Swiss-eating campaign monkeys.’ I didn’t say anything close to that. And I tried to find that motherfucking reporter. I was so pissed.”
“He used to come in all the time. He would come in late at night, always fucked-up, always with strippers. And he expected to get all of his sandwiches for free, and we did try to take care of him. Then one time, he gets into it with one of my nighttime managers and said, ‘Fuck you. I’m never coming back here.’ And we told him, ‘Who cares? You don’t fucking pay for the sandwiches anyway!’”
“Bill used to stop by frequently, so much so that he had my cell. One night, he calls and says he’s on his way to the store, but I told him I was on my way to Ocean City for Mack & Manco’s pizza. My now-ex-wife wanted to know who was on the phone, and I told her Bill Clinton. She thought I was lying and that it was a woman, that I was cheating on her, but then she got on the phone and realized it really was Bill.”
“The whole fucking Van Halen group would come by whenever they were in town. During the ‘1984’ tour, Dave, Eddie and the whole lot had scheduled some practice sessions at a studio near South Street. They invited me. I heard them practice ‘Jump’! Let’s just say there was lots of vodka, Jack Daniel’s and other substances involved. I hung out with them all night. The next day was a rough one.”
“The owner of the Cowboys loves our sandwiches. Once, he sent a car for me to come down to the Vet, and he insisted I stand on the Dallas side. I’m standing there the whole game with my Pat’s shirt on, and people are throwing cups of beer at me, yelling, ‘Fuck you!’ I told them, ‘I’m just standing here!’ They threw more beer. Ah, the Vet.”
“She came with Barack when he was campaigning, but she came back at some point later with her children, both of whom were in flip-flops. I have a picture of her with her kids and my mother. I actually sat with her for about 30 minutes. We talked about kids and education, and honestly, she’s one of the nicest and most personable people I’ve ever spoken to.”
Photographs via Getty Images
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published as “King of Steaks” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.