The Mighty Philly Cheesesteak"It's our calling card to the world … the embodiment of our in-your-face, unpretentious, populist way."
Will that be "wit" or "witout"?
If you say "wit," and you're in line at one of South Philly's famous cheesesteak stands, you'll get a sandwich with grilled onions. If you say "witout," well, then your sandwich will arrive at the counter without onions. And if you say "Whiz wit," now you're really talking the language, and you'll get your cheesesteak with onions and Cheez Whiz.
It's just the way it is here in South Philly. It's the neighborhood's own words, its own way of doing business, and its own flavors. But all you have to do is grab some napkins (for all the steak juice), get in line and place your order (quickly, so as not to hold up the line or annoy the staff) to experience cheesesteak cuisine like the locals.
Steak sandwiches have been a cultural obsession and key tourist attraction for decades in Philadelphia. It began in 1930 when Pat Olivieri and his brother Harry, while tending their hot dog stand, reportedly cooked some beef on their grill, placed it on an Italian roll and added some onions. They soon discovered how much people loved the combination. Thus, Pat's King of Steaks was born.
In 1966, Geno's Steaks opened — right across the street from Pat's, at the intersection of South Ninth Street and East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly. Both places, where customers typically chow down their meals at outside canopied tables or just standing around, are open 24 hours a day.
Though born in South Philly, cheesesteaks are sold throughout the city, from the food trucks at Temple University in North Philadelphia to Barclay Prime in Rittenhouse Square ($100 buys you a rib eye and foie gras cheesesteak, along with half a bottle of champagne). Locals hotly debate who has the best ones, and various media routinely conduct "best cheesesteak" polls.
So what is a cheesesteak? It's basically grilled beef, onions and cheese on a long, freshly baked roll. Cheese choices typically include Cheez Whiz, provolone and American. Sometimes the meat is chopped, sometimes it's a thin slab.
"It's our calling card to the world," says Carolyn Wyman, author of "The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book," a guide to the places offering the local specialty. "Philly has such a street food culture and always has. Its roots are as a blue-collar town, and it's a perfect sandwich in that sense. It's the embodiment of our in-your-face, unpretentious, populist way. It's a very democratic food. The ingredients are simple, they're affordable and they're familiar. And it's easy to like."
In an ode to the Philadelphia staple, Tony Luke Jr., proprietor of South Philly's Tony Luke's sandwich shop, performs a song he wrote called "The Cheese Steak Anthem." A few bars sum up the Philly cheesesteak experience:
"I know you heard about 'em. One thing's for sure. Once you have had one you'll be back here for more. … It is the one food that we all love the most. No sandwich any way can even come close."