The Philly Cheese Steak’s Italian American History

By Bob Masullo

Excerpt from “6 Italian American Sandwiches That You Won’t Find in Italy” in NIAF’s Ambassador magazine, 2021 Spring Issue.

The most popular, and in the opinion of many the most delicious Italian American sandwich, comes from Philadelphia—the Philly Cheese Steak. Made with thinly sliced, sautéed rib-eye beef and melted cheese—usually cheddar, or American, even Cheese Whiz, though provolone has been an option from the start—and served on a long, crusty roll with fried onions, spicy peppers, sometimes sautéed mushrooms and tomato sauce.

The sandwich’s name doesn’t hint at its ethnic roots, but in South Philly, the city’s Little Italy, Italian Americans Pat and Harry Olivieri invented it in the 1920s. Pat used to sell hot dogs from a small street stand. One day, having grown tired of his own fare, he asked his brother Harry go to a nearby butcher and buy some beef. Pat grilled the beef, added some onions, put it on an Italian roll, and as he was getting ready to eat it, a cab driver smelled the beef and asked for a steak sandwich himself.

“You ought to sell these…,” said the cabbie. According to legend, cab drivers from all over the city started coming for the steak sandwiches. Pat added the cheese  years later.

In 1930, Pat opened Pat’s King of Steaks on E. Passyunk Avenue, specializing—and still does—in cheese steaks. Served hot, the sandwich spread to other Philadelphia eateries—including across the street at the famous rival cheese steaks at Geno’s—and then went nationwide.

Read about the other five Italian American sandwiches at and flip to page 54.

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