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.

Bill Proetto: I had purchased Jim’s around 1965. Then right around the time that cheesesteaks were really coming into their own, we opened South Street, on July 4, 1976, for the Bicentennial. South Street was very dangerous at the time, not like it is today. We weren’t really doing so well, but then your magazine named us in ’77 or ’78 the best cheesesteak in the city. And business really took off.

Maury Z. Levy, editorial director of Philadelphia magazine from 1970 to 1980: When we first started Best of Philly, way back when, there weren’t a ton of places around, at least not a lot of great ones, so the argument was always Pat’s or Geno’s, and everybody sort of gave into that. So we searched out other places, within Center City and some of the neighborhoods, and one of the first places we gave it to was Jim’s on South. We tried it and loved it. I think that helped them significantly. Over the years, the cheesesteak award was one of the things that people got most upset about. You rarely heard, “That was a great pick.” You heard, “Are you guys out of your fucking minds? How could you say that?” And people would start campaigns. You’d get 50 letters word for word with different people just signing them. People would try to make their vote known, but we weren’t democratic back then. It was a big deal then, and it’s even bigger today.

Craig LaBan, food critic, Philadelphia Inquirer: It’s one of those foods that cut across all classes and generations. When you write about cheesesteaks, you hear from 500,000 people. It’s one of those “moments” foods. People remember the cheesesteak they had with their buddy. It represents things other than just lunch. You’ve been in a place where characters are still part of the lore and experience.

Celeste Morello: During the ’70s and ’80s, fast food really started taking hold. Frankie claims that he never had to advertise. Geno’s is another matter.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: It was around the same time as Rocky. Sylvester Stallone came down here and spoke to my father and said, “You know, I’m interested in filming this movie here,” and my father was like, “Okay,” and Stallone says, “Well, we’re going to close you down.” So my father says, “Well, if you’re going to close us down, you gotta pay us what we normally make.” I guess they arrived at a number. … Stallone was really a nobody at the time.

Joey Vento: Back in those days, this was all Italian. Actually, it was only in the last four, five years that I’ve seen any really big changes, with the different immigrants coming in and the different languages. My orders started getting messed up. We were hiring people who didn’t understand the language. And then the big political thing came up. But we’re just trying to serve a sandwich here.

Frank Olivieri Jr.: Joe is arrogant, but not ignorant. The competition really keeps us going. Joe Vento is like Plankton. And we are like Krusty Krab. And he’s trying to steal our recipe all the time. He’ll fire employees, and then they come over to our place and work here for a couple of weeks and find out what to do and how many we’re selling, and then they quit. And we play along with it, because it’s really no secret. And we sell 10 to one. For every one sandwich he sells, I sell 10 more. Our baker was until recently the same baker, so I know how many he was selling.