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.

Holly Moore: Every city I go to, I can find a great hamburger stand or a great hot-dog stand very easily. But in Philly, the cheesesteak is so dominant that they’ve squeezed out the ­cheeseburger/hot-dog place. I could open one up at 9th and Passyunk and I would go out of business. People will just eat their cheesesteaks.

Maury Z. Levy: You see the allegiance to the cheesesteak when you go to a ball game. If you don’t get to Ashburn Alley early enough, you could be standing there for the first three innings just waiting for your steak. There are a lot of ballparks with good food, but that kind of religious loyalty doesn’t happen anywhere but in Philadelphia. When the park first opened, we’d go with friends and family and argue which steak place to go to: “Wait a minute, I like this one.” You like that one. It gets very scientific: The steak is good, but the roll sucks. It has to be a great roll, not smushed with grease. The cheese becomes a part of it, too — how it melts. People will just argue forever about their ­cheesesteaks.

Craig LaBan: It’s very hard to replicate on a mass-­production level. It takes skill, know-how, primal knowledge in your DNA of what it’s supposed to taste like. There’s something that will be forever local about it, and I think that gets to the heart of its greatness, because it’s a sandwich that speaks to this place, and regional foods are so rare now in America. So that’s why you have a local pride. That doesn’t explain why people eat thousands of bad ­cheesesteaks every day, but it does explain why people approach it as a local sport. On a more national scale, you sort of still have the great cheesesteak artisans. They take pride in their ingredients, how they’re cooked. There is a clear hierarchy. When you hear that clink of frozen meat hitting the griddle and there’s some high-school kid behind it, you just know there’s going to be a difference. Because it’s an art.

Holly Moore: I think that if Tony Luke’s or John’s had gotten to Pat’s location first and was doing the pork sandwich, then the city’s sandwich would probably have been the pork. I look forward to a pork sandwich more than a cheesesteak. Tommy DiNic’s at Reading Terminal, I’d rather have that any time. But if I think of the soul of Philadelphia, I think cheesesteaks.