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.


Joseph Torsella, president and CEO, the National Constitution Center: When the United States Olympic Committee came for their official site visit in 2006, they passed up our offer of a catered lunch from any of Philadelphia’s finest restaurants. They said, “Thanks, but no thanks — we’re going to hail cabs so we can go get real Philly cheesesteaks.”

Meryl Levitz, president and CEO, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation: Everyone feels like they have to have one when they come here. It’s just like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. It combines the interest in quality with the true grit of the place; it’s something that everyone can be a part of. Of course, you have to do it right. You can’t have somebody like Senator Kerry come in and pick some windsurfer or parasailing kind of cheese.

Washington Post, August 13, 2003: … [T]he Massachusetts Democrat went to Pat’s Steaks and ordered a cheesesteak — with Swiss cheese. If that weren’t bad enough, the candidate asked photographers not to take his picture while he ate his sandwich; shutters clicked anyway, and Kerry was caught nibbling daintily at his sandwich — another serious faux pas. “It will doom his candidacy in Philadelphia,” predicted Craig LaBan, food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which broke the Sandwich Scandal. After all, Philly cheesesteaks come with Cheez Whiz, or occasionally American or provolone. But Swiss cheese? “In Philadelphia, that’s an alternative lifestyle,” LaBan explained.

Michael Smerconish, radio talk-show host: Kerry produced a tremendous amount of call-in response. People were asking, “How can you govern if you don’t know how to order a cheesesteak?” I thought at the time that it was such a snapshot of who Kerry was, the effete Kerry.

Maury Z. Levy: People who aren’t from here are appalled by the idea of Cheez Whiz: “What? People don’t really eat that!” Some think it’s worse than Spam. We had the original junk food.

Basil Maglaris, spokesman, Kraft Foods: The Philadelphia/South Jersey market accounts for approximately one-quarter of our total Cheez Whiz food-­service sales in the U.S. And the same market accounts for 50 percent of our American White Cheese Slices, as it’s another popular ingredient in the Philly cheesesteak.

Holly Moore: Any time it says “Philly” in front of the name, don’t get it. They’re pretenders if they have to use the word Philly. I stopped trying cheesesteaks throughout the country when at a California farmers’ market they offered me a choice of toppings: bean sprouts or avocado.