The 3 Types Of Cheese You'll Find On A Philly Cheesesteak

When the word "cheesesteak" pops up on a menu anywhere outside of Eastern Pennsylvania or South Jersey, native Philadelphians are likely to find themselves screaming, like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, "Look how they massacred my boy!" People have done unspeakable things to the Philly cheesesteak, turning it into empanadas, spring rolls, or even soup.

So let's have a little chat about what exactly makes a classic Philly cheesesteak. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the sandwich came out of a South Philly hot dog stand operated by brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, who put some grilled beef with onions on a roll one day in the 1930s, inadvertently inventing a citywide legacy. It was called a steak sandwich until the 1950s when it became common practice to order the sandwich with cheese, though there are still debates over who did it first.

A proper Philly Cheesesteak sandwich, as presented by venues like Pat's King of Steaks, Geno's Steaks, or Jim's South Street, is judged on three main criteria. Visit Philly's cheesesteak primer explains that the meat in a cheesesteak should ideally be thinly-sliced rib-eye steak; the bread should be a long, crispy roll (what might be called a sub in other states); and the cheese ... well, that one's up for debate.

No Swiss cheese, please

Ordering the wrong kind of cheese at a genuine South Philly cheesesteak establishment will get you more than just a nasty look. Locals still get heated about that time in 2003 when, on the campaign trail, presidential candidate John Kerry ordered his Pat's cheesesteak with Swiss Cheese (per Vice). Don't even think about asking for cheddar, mozzarella, or parmesan, either.

"There are only three types of cheese you should use: provolone, cheese wiz, or American cheese," explains Allrecipes' Nicole McLaughlin. "They're all authentic so it's a matter of taste."

It's hard to know which cheese came first, because the stories get muddy over generations. Frank Olivieri, Pat's nephew, told Philadelphia Magazine: 

"The first cheese was a provolone cheese. We had a manager named Joe Lorenza, or Cocky Joe. He was always drunk, completely inebriated. A waste of our time. But he was the first person to put cheese on the sandwich." Frank's son, Frank Olivieri, Jr., had previously told the Inquirer that his dad had started using Cheez Whiz because he could hide it from his father, Pat, explaining that, "Pat never wanted cheese at his original shop because he tried to keep sort of kosher for all his Jewish friends."