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.

Maury Z. Levy: The first time I was in L.A., the menu at this restaurant said “cheesesteak,” so I said, “Oh great, I’ll have that.” It was literally a sirloin steak with a glob of cheese on top and a big steak roll. It’s still funny to see them in other cities. But if you were born here or grew up here, you know the secret formula.

Dave London, owner, The Philly Way, Milwaukee: I used to work in radio in the Philly area — ’YSP, ’MMR, WIFI 92. And then I got a job that sent me out to Milwaukee in 1990 to run a station. I got bored, and I had a culinary background. I had even worked at Pat’s in the ’70s. For a time, I was working as a tour manager for Dustin ­Diamond — Screech from Saved By the Bell — and we were in town at Temple. I went down for a steak, and it was at that moment that I decided to go back to Milwaukee to show them what a ­cheesesteak was really like. When I opened six years ago, there was just one other ­cheesesteak place out here. The guy was from Jersey. And so I went in and tried it — he had a bunch of other foods, an enormous menu — and I asked for a Whiz wit’, and he said, “We don’t have that.” And I thought, That’s it. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. From day one, I exploded, and then a few years ago, your magazine did that article about cheesesteaks around the country and named mine the best. And that really just set us off in a whole new way. The sandwich of Milwaukee is the brat. When the Phillies were in town a couple of years ago, there was a contest at the park pitting my cheesesteak against the guy who is said to do the best brats in town. I won.

Maury Z. Levy: Every other city in the world, when someone asks you what school you went to, they mean college. In Philly when someone asks you that, they mean high school. Sometimes junior high school. It’s a working-class food. It’s the stuff you ate growing up. It was good. No matter how successful or fancy you got, you never forgot your roots. We have loyalty. And you can’t shame us into not eating this stuff. We don’t care who you are.

Chuck Peruto Jr., criminal defense attorney: I was representing — I guess you could call him a Mob boss — Harry Riccobene when he was feuding with Nicky Scarfo back in the 1980s. It was very well publicized. They were killing each others’ families. At the height of these Mob wars, I went to visit Harry at the detention center. It was an incredibly high-security facility. And as we’re talking, a guard walks over with a bag. Inside, a Geno’s cheesesteak. Harry shared it with me.