Out of the hundreds of shops selling cheesesteaks in the Philadelphia area, I’d bet that four of them get 80% of the attention.
No matter your opinions — and sentiment is all over the place — you can’t consider cheesesteaks without mentioning the old-timers Pat’s King of Steaks (where the sandwich was invented in 1930), Geno’s Steaks (its cross-intersection rival, which opened in 1966), Jim’s South Street (at Fourth and South since 1976, following a debut in West Philadelphia in 1939), and Dalessandro’s (on a busy Roxborough corner since 1961, after moving from nearby).
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In 1930, the story goes, a taxi driver pulled up to Pat Olivieri’s hot dog cart at Ninth and Passyunk, spotted him grilling beef from a butcher for his own lunch, and suggested he sell it.
More than 90 years later, his nephew Frank Olivieri Jr. runs perhaps the best-known cheesesteak shop — a 24-hour destination at the crossroads of Ninth, Wharton, and Passyunk where fans flock for takeout from the windows and outdoor dining on metal tables. Occasionally, a limo or tour bus will roll up after a sports game or concert, as it’s 15 minutes from the South Philadelphia sports complex.
When the pandemic put a dent in walk-up business, Pat’s started selling mass quantities on the national delivery service Goldbelly, Olivieri said. That part of the trade remains as foot traffic is returning.
The signature cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions ($12), on a roll from Aversa Bakery, is the best seller, followed by a mushroom-topped steak with either Whiz or provolone. Olivieri, a trained chef, believes that Pat’s style of slicing the beef extremely thinly melds better with the cheese. Note: It’s not actually chopped, which some shops do.
In 1966, Joey Vento — whose pop had a cheesesteak stand years before — opened across from Pat’s. As the story goes, he had two boxes of steaks, a few hot dogs, and $6 in his pocket. He named the stand after graffito he found as he was renovating, and when he and his wife, Eileen, had a baby boy in 1971, they named him Geno.
Vento had a brash personality, and he was vocal about his support for specific causes, such as police issues, children’s charities, and hospices; he once donated $100,000 to support an Elton John AIDS-awareness concert. He made national headlines in 2006 for posting a sign at the window that read: “This is America, when ordering please speak English.” The sign came down in 2016, five years after his death.
Geno’s orange-and-white stand, with its dual windows for ordering and pickup, is a neon-ringed tribute to PECO, glowing 24 hours a day. (Former Inquirer columnist Rick Nichols quipped that “it looked like a Mummers outfit set on fire at night.”)
The beef is cut into small slabs, griddled, and piled onto rolls from Liscio’s Bakery. The most popular is Whiz and fried onions ($11). A full 60% of customers get onions, says counterman Anthony Rossi.
Jim’s Steaks traces its roots to a cheesesteak shop that opened in 1939 in a house on 62nd Street in West Philadelphia. In 1966, William Proetto bought it. Ten years later, as Philadelphia prepared for the Bicentennial, Proetto and his lawyer, Abner Silver, opened the second location, on South Street. Other locations followed from the family of Proetto, who died in 2011. The Proettos own the Jim’s Steaks in Springfield, Delaware County.
Silver, who also had a shop called Abner’s in University City, took over the South Street location upon Proetto’s death. Silver died in 2015.
Silver’s son, Ken, oversees a bustling operation at the two-level, black-and-white-tiled shop, where the line routinely snakes throughout the store, out the front door, and south onto Fourth Street — amid the perfume of grilled meat and onions. Peek in the front window to see the steaks being made.
It’s to-go only until Friday, June 11, when Jim’s Steaks will reopen its second-floor dining room.
Dalessandro’s has held the corner of Henry Avenue and Wendover Street since 1961, taking over the ground-floor level of a rowhouse about a year after William Dalessandro had gone into business on nearby Ridge Avenue.
In 2009, Steve Kotridis, a longtime Center City street food vendor, bought it from the Dalessandro family, retaining the staff and the operation as it was. The shop closed from mid-March through mid-June 2020 during the pandemic, but reopened with pickup service only. You scrounge a parking place nearby, order, and mill around on the sidewalk to wait for your sandwiches.
The beef here is chopped and served on Amoroso’s rolls. Most ask for American cheese ($10), as opposed to Whiz, according to an order-taker who did not wish to be identified. There’s beer.
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