Philadelphia is known for Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell – and most all – its cheesesteaks!
Cheesesteaks are a point of civic pride in Philly, as well a major draw for tourists to the city, because while they are duplicated worldwide, these amazing sandwiches are rarely duplicated successfully outside the city itself.
As legend has it, the cheesesteak was created in the 1930s by hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri. One day he decided to throw some scraps from the butcher on the grill and a cabbie was lured by the aroma. The next day, rumour of these steak sandwiches had spread to cabbies around the city. Soon Olivieri opened up shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue. The addition of the customary Cheese Whiz didn't come until the 1950s, but it is contested on whether Pat's King of Steaks or Gino's Steaks did it first.
Many Philadelphia institutions take their cheesesteaks very seriously, so for those out-of-towners who don't know the lingo, this may result in being sent to the back of the line. In some places, Cheese Whiz is negotiable, but others will simply ask: “Whiz wit?" The "wit" is referring to onions, which sometimes are non-negotiable as well. For those who don't want fried onions, just answer "witout." Who knew that ordering food could be so complicated?
However, the big question is this: Where can visitors get a quality cheesesteak in this town that’s full of cheesesteak? Here are some of the best...
1. Pat's King of Steak
What better place to get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia than in the original home of the cheesesteak? In the same location where it has been since Pat Olivieri first had his stand, you’ll find the original Pat's King of Steak.
The shop is still run by the Olivieri family, who have been running the shop with efficiency since the 1930s. If you don't know your order when you get to the counter and have your money in hand, you can expect a severe tongue-lashing. And don’t try to get too fancy with your cheesesteak order; Pat's does things the original way because it is the best way. The cheesesteaks here are not complete without onions or Cheese Whiz. Even when customers request provolone or American cheese, the Cheese Whiz will still be present.
2. Geno's Steaks
Geno's Steaks, conveniently located across the street from Pat's King of Steaks, is the ever-present rival of Pat's. While there is no argument that Pat's did it first, Geno's claims that it was the establishment that first added the Cheese Whiz that made that simple steak sandwich into a cheesesteak.
There isn't much difference between the cheesesteaks at Geno's and Pat's. They both come with mandatory Cheese Whiz and onions; they are both fast-paced and they are both very good. However, Geno's is a little sneaky. Its bright orange building is so bright, you could probably pick it out of the cityscape when your flight lands, so it naturally draws the eye more than Pat's. The hungry should consider just getting sandwiches from both places and trying to settle this 40-year rivalry on their own.
3. John's Roast Pork
For those turned off by the neon orange American staple that is Cheese Whiz, but still want to experience the cheesesteak, John’s is the place to go. There are two lines in the cramped little shop: one for roast pork and one for cheesesteak. Be careful not to get in the wrong one – the staff don’t appreciate that.
However, there is one thing that sets John's apart from every other cheesesteak place – the lack of Cheeze Whiz. In most places that sling up this Philly original, the Whiz is non-negotiable, but John's doesn't stock any. The only cheese on offer is provolone, either sharp or mild, and instead of plain soft rolls, John's serves up pleasantly crunchy sesame seed rolls. For those who have never had a cheesesteak, this may not be the best place to start, but the differences work beautifully in their own way.
4. Tony Luke's
Tony Luke's is a legendary establishment in south Philly. It originally rose to fame for its Italian pork sandwich, which consists of roast pork topped with broccoli rabe and provolone. These days the pork sandwich is becoming just as popular as the cheesesteak around Philly, and that is all due to Tony Luke's.
However, like any sandwich shop in Philly, Tony Luke's also offers cheesesteaks. There’s a wide variety of cheeses on offer for your cheesesteak, but if you choose the classic Cheese Whiz option, Tony Luke's does something unique by mixing just a hint of mustard in. However, the nicest thing about Tony Luke's is the etiquette. Most cheesesteak shops in Philly are fast-paced and the staff can be a little abrasive to non-locals who don't quite know how to order, but Tony Luke's is pleasantly understanding to out-of-towners.
5. McNally's Tavern
McNally's Tavern has recently become famous for its unique spin on the traditional cheesesteak. The sandwich, called the ‘Schmitter’, includes the traditional steak, fried onions and melted cheese, but there’s also grilled salami, grilled tomatoes and a secret sauce. And instead of the traditional long roll, McNally's uses a toasted Kaiser roll.
The combination sounds strange, but it works. The staff also allow the original cheesesteak sandwiches, but they are extremely flexible with what you can put on it, which is nice. It's not the best place for a first cheesesteak, simply because they do allow for variations, but it is a must-visit for a different spin on the classic that draws people to Philadelphia in the first place.
Located just three blocks from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Campo's is a great stop for an authentic Philly cheesesteak experience. This deli serves up traditional deli sandwiches as well cheesesteaks. It is often praised for having the best cheesesteaks in town, much to the chagrin of Pat's King of Steak and Geno's Steaks.
The key to Campo's success with this Philadelphia staple is the portions. This deli really piles on the meat and doesn't skimp with the onions or cheese either. Campo's has become so popular that it has even started to ship its sandwiches to hungry customers in other states as well.
7. Jim's Steaks
Though Jim's Steaks has multiple locations around Philly, the smell of fried onions wafting down its original South Street location has made it a beloved institution. The lines at Jim's may frequently stretch out the door and around the corner, but the mouth-watering aroma makes sure that customers who endure the wait will be hungry for their order. Jim's offers the original sandwich with Cheese Whiz, as well as chilly dogs, roast pork, and Italian dips. So no matter what sandwich urge hits while you’re waiting in the legendary long line-ups, Jim’s will satisfy it.
8. Shank's Original
Located by the Delaware River Waterfront, Shank's is a highly reputed purveyor of hot sandwiches. The steak sandwich and the traditional cheesesteak are both made with certified Angus beef. There’s also roast pork, Italian sausage and chicken cheesesteak on offer. After tasting any number of the many sandwiches on the extensive menu, it is easy to see why Shank's Original has been nicknamed the ‘Original Taste of Philly’.
9. Steve's Prince Of Steaks
Steve's does things a little bit different than most of the cheesesteak joints in Philly – that much is obvious just by looking at the place. Instead of a sturdy little stand with outdoor seating, Steve's is run in a metallic tube-like trailer. It looks a bit like a smaller railroad-style diner right out of the 1950s.
Inside, Steve's serves up a cheesesteak on a thinner roll than most, allowing it to fully soak up some of the meat juices and cheese, making the sandwich decadently soft. The meat is cooked flat on the grill, and then served up that way, opposed to being chopped up into bits like othe