The Cheesesteak Cometh

Of all of the contributions Philadelphia has given the world (like, say, democracy), none has become more identified with our city than the tasty concoction Pat Olivieri invented back in 1930. The cheesesteak has evolved into our signature icon, the most Philly of Philly symbols, recognized (and eaten) around the world. Here, an oral history of the sandwich we can’t live wit’out.

pats-steaksFrank Olivieri Jr., owner, Pat’s King of Steaks: My great-uncle, Pat — that was my grandfather’s older brother — he had a hot-dog stand he opened around 1930. The neighborhood was always busy, with one of the country’s first open-air markets — that’s the Italian Market — a block away.

Celeste Morello, South Philadelphia historian and author of Philadelphia’s Italian Foods: By the time Pat’s came along, the whole area was a largely Italian neighborhood.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: The workers would line up. He would sell them hot dogs off his little cart. And then one day Pat wanted something different for lunch; he was tired of the hot dogs. So he asked my grandfather to go down to the butcher and pick up some scraps of meat. When my grandfather came back, Pat cooked it up on a hot dog roll. There was a cab driver there who saw the sandwich and said, “Wow, that looks really great. Make me one.” Pat told him he only had enough beef for one sandwich, so they split it. The cab driver said, “That’s terrific. You should stop selling hot dogs and sell these things.” And that was the invention of the steak sandwich.

Celeste Morello: Actually, back in the 19th century, there were cookbooks that included recipes for the steak sandwich. It was called the “beefsteak sandwich.” But the Olivieris in the 1930s did it a little bit differently. Different bread. Different seasonings.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: Across from Pat’s hot-dog cart, a man named Joe Butch had a building. The second floor was a kitchen, and downstairs there was a tavern. When it started getting cold, Joe Butch comes to Pat and says, “Listen, winter is coming. Why don’t you just make your sandwiches in here?” Eventually, more people were eating than drinking, so the guys who owned the taproom decided to cut a hole in the wall and start serving the sandwiches through it. Eventually, Pat took over the entire building.

Bill Proetto, owner, Jim’s Steaks: You had Pat’s in South Philly, and then Jim’s in West Philly in 1939, at 62nd and Noble. The house on the corner was Jim’s, and he used to sit in the front window. Guys would be standing on the corner. So Jim started to sell coffee out the window. Eventually, he got the idea to do the steak sandwiches.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: The original Jim’s is miles away from Pat’s, so he didn’t affect us much. And Pat started making his way into using the pictures of celebrities to heighten the business, and people would come from all over to see them. Pat would go to theaters where celebrities would be — movie premieres, that kind of thing — and bring steaks to give to them. He met Humphrey Bogart one time, and Uncle Pat pulled out his .38-caliber revolver and asked Bogey to hold the gun on him while he held his hands up. Uncle Pat was crazy.

Bill Proetto: Jim’s never really went in for the celebrity photographs early on. That was not really a focus. Jim’s had and has better-quality meat. The cheese didn’t come around until the ’50s or so.