The True Origin Of The Philly Cheesesteak

Philadelphia has a well-earned reputation as a great sandwich city. How many other cities, after all, can lay claim, as Philadelphia does, to the invention of three iconic sandwiches? According to Visit Philadelphia, the city's sandwich trinity is comprised of the hoagie, the roast pork sandwich, and the Philly cheesesteak, with their respective creations most likely occurring in that order. The roast pork sandwich, for instance, had its genesis in Italy, but the Philadelphia version was created by Domenico Bucci in 1930 in a South Philly eatery that's now named for his son: John's Roast Pork.

The hoagie is the only one of the three iconic sandwiches without a verifiable origin story. One theory, related by Visit Philadelphia, credits its birth around the turn of the 20th century to Italian-American dock workers at the Hog Island shipyard who reportedly referred to their oversized sandwiches as "hoggies"; a name that evolved into hoagies. If this is true, then members of Philadelphia's thriving Italian-American community were responsible for inventing all three of the city's iconic sandwiches. Italian migration to the city spiked during the latter half of the 19th century, notes The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, with many newcomers settling in South Philadelphia where at least two of the three sandwiches were born.

As for the Philly cheesesteak, its origin elicits almost no arguments. Just about everybody in Philadelphia — outside rival cheesesteak restaurants — agrees about who invented this comfort food masterpiece and when.

How the Philly steak got its cheese

It all started in 1930, when Pat Olivieri began operating a hot dog cart near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, Philadelphia Magazine relays its oral history of the city's most famous sandwich. As the story goes, one lunchtime that same year, Olivieri was in the mood for something else to eat and sent his brother to a local butcher shop for meat. Olivieri cooked the chopped beef on his cart's grill, scooping it into an Italian roll with onions, according to Pat's King of Steaks website (the namesake restaurant that Olivieri subsequently established across from the old hot dog stand). A passing cab driver was intrigued and asked for the same thing. Per the restaurant's site, the cab driver reportedly said, "Hey ... forget 'bout those hot dogs, you should sell these," after scarfing the sandwich down.

From this propitious incident, a legend was born ... or was it? The origin story for the Philly cheesesteak is noticeably absent of one crucial ingredient: Cheese. As Philadelphia Magazine explains, the Philly steak sandwich didn't include cheese until the 1940s when a boozy restaurant manager at Pat's King of Steaks named "Cocky Joe" Lorenza decided to add some provolone. That's when the authentic Philly cheesesteak was born.

Nowadays, observes Visit Philadelphia, there are several acceptable Philly cheesesteak cheese options, including Cheeze Whiz and American cheese. Each has its share of diehard partisans, but given the history, provolone remains the most traditional option.