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.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: The cheese really came up in the ’40s out at the Pat’s on Ridge Avenue. The first cheese was a provolone cheese. We had a manager named Joe Lorenza, or Cocky Joe. He was always drunk, completely inebriated. A waste of our time. But he was the first person to put cheese on the sandwich.

Celeste Morello: There seems to be no indication of cheese on the sandwich before Pat’s did so, thus inventing the cheesesteak.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: By the early ’60s, Uncle Pat had moved out to Los Angeles. My father, my grandfather and my cousin Herb — Pat’s son — were operating the business. Around the time that Geno’s came along, that was 1966, my grandfather and father bought this location [at 9th and Passyunk] from Pat. So then it really became a Pat’s/Geno’s thing.

Joey Vento, owner, Geno’s Steaks: That guy across the street. He claims he invented the steak sandwich. I’ll give him that. He claims he invented the Whiz. Okay. I’ll give him that. All I did was come along and perfect it. And I started out with just a $2,000 investment. Before Geno’s, my father did steaks in this neighborhood, where the playground is near Passyunk and Wharton. It used to be a cemetery. He had a little cart over there. And then he opened up a shop, and I worked for him. But then in 1957, I volunteered for the draft, and then, unfortunately, my father had a problem, and so I come home, try to help the family, but we lost everything.

Celeste Morello: Joey Vento’s family had some rough times. I don’t know if that’s something he is going to want to get into, but it probably doesn’t hurt to ask.

Joey Vento: A guy owed my father money, and my father went out and killed him, went to jail for life. My father went to jail at the age of 36 and died in prison at 46 years old. I never saw my father after he was 36 years old. My brother was a gangster, probably done every illegal activity he could in the city. So I got the $2,000 to open Geno’s from my wife’s father, who was a bookie.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: He originally had it spelled Gino’s. But there was already Gino’s by Gino Marchetti the football player — the hamburger place. So they convinced him to change the name to Geno’s. The building he’s in was actually condemned at the time. He turned it into Las Vegas.

Joey Vento: I’ve never changed my sandwich. So even with that guy across the street, I think I’m more authentic than he is. He changed. His meat’s different now. He’s into the chopped-meat thing. But the Philly steak needs to be really thinly sliced rib eye. That’s how it started out.

Frank Olivieri Jr.:
The real rivalry between Pat’s and Geno’s started as something that the media did, I think. I would say it was probably as early as 1970, 1973, around there. We started getting publicity. And people would come down here, and it was exciting. And then the whole Rocky thing began in 1976, and the media would say, “Well, Pat’s is doing this. What’s Geno’s doing?” You know, trying to start a fire.