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.

Joey Vento: Oh, is that so? I say put your money where your mouth’s at. It was a hot-dog cart when you started, and 70 years later it still looks like a hot-dog cart.

Holly Moore, publisher,
Some people have a knee-jerk reaction that says Pat’s is horrible. Pat’s is where it all started. You stand in line, and it’s two-thirds to three-quarters South Philadelphians. They may not serve the best. But they serve a great sandwich. People love to put good things down. I call it the Bookbinder’s syndrome. But there’s no greater fun than to stand at 9th and Passyunk to do the eat-off between Geno’s and Pat’s and decide for yourself. It’s the real South Philadelphia. About four years ago, PBS did a special on sandwiches, and I was the host for the Philadelphia portion. We were filming down at Pat’s, and we noticed that it’s the same as team spirit, when you talk to people about their favorite ­cheesesteaks. It’s like being a Phillies fan, or graduating from Cardinal Whatever high school. It’s very much a part of being a Philadelphian.

Congressman Bob Brady: When [Bill] Clinton was campaigning in ’96, he came here for a fund-raiser, and he had an hour of downtime. Rendell says, “What could we do for an hour?” I said, “Let’s take ’em down to Geno’s or Pat’s. Have lunch.” So myself, Clinton and Rendell, we went down to Pat’s, and all the press was there. I got the steaks and brought them to the President. He was sitting down, and the press was clicking away. He starts pulling it towards his mouth. I said, “Wait, you can’t sit down. You gotta stand up.” And so he stands up and brings it to his mouth, and I said, “Whoa, whoa, you gotta lean forward on the ledge.” And so he leans forward on the ledge and pulls it up to his mouth again. And I said, “Wait a minute, you gotta tuck your tie in.” So he tucks his tie in, takes a bite, and sure enough a whole load of it spills out the back onto the ledge. I said, “I told you.” That night at the fund-­raiser — it was a big speech, $10,000 ticket, at one of the major hotels — he told everybody that the best thing he learned today was how to eat a cheesesteak: “You gotta stand up, lean over, and stick your tie in.” I taught him that. Rendell likes to take credit for it. But that’s bullshit. I was the one who taught him the South Philly lean.