The Olivieri family in Philadelphia claims to be the first to have made the sandwiches, in the 1930s. The family still owns and runs “Pat’s King of Steaks” in Philadelphia. Their sandwich store was shown in the movie “Rocky.” Many fans say that the Olivieri family still makes the best Cheese Steaks; other fans will say that better ones are made elsewhere now.
True ones are said by aficionados to be possible, alas, only in Philadelphia. The rolls, they say, must come from south Philadelphia, which was the Italian area. The rolls are long, thin, crusty Italian rolls that look like half-size submarine rolls (aka hoagie rolls.) The rolls can’t be soft and fluffy as are normally used for submarine or hoagie sandwiches, nor can they have anything fancy on them like sesame seeds. If you don’t have the right bun, you don’t have the right sandwich.
Nor can you plop any old steak on a bun and call it a Cheese Steak. The steak is thinly-sliced beef, usually cut about 1/8 inch thin (30 mm) from boneless rib eye. The beef is usually frozen a bit before slicing to enable it to be sliced this thinly. Special steak cut this thin is sold commercially in Philadelphia just for this purpose; it’s called “Philly Style.” It’s usually sold, though, in large, bulk, commercial-sized packages, so it is hard for home users to buy in quantities appropriate for home use. As a substitute, people at home will use thin steaks such as minute steaks. The steak is fried on a grill, often an unoiled one.
The cheese used can be mozzarella, provolone, or Cheeze Whiz. The cheese used to always be mozzarella or provolone, but Cheeze Whiz really is now the standard. Purists are unhappy with this, but Cheese Whiz has acquired a camp of many people who now prefer it and insist it really is the best on this sandwich.
As optional items, any fresh, uncooked, vegetables such as tomatoes or lettuce are out of place, as would be even pickles. The optional items that are accepted into the canon, such as sliced onions, mushrooms, garlic or bell peppers, are all fried or steamed first. Though you can have a pickle on the side if you want, no one’s going to say anything about that.
There are three major variations of Philadelphia Cheese Steaks within Philadelphia:
- South Philly Style: Sliced beef, Cheez Whiz (example, Geno’s);
- Roxborough Style: Steak is chopped up a bit during cooking. The cheese is provolone (example, Delassandro’s);
- A variation, called Pizza Steak, has tomato sauce added, and is placed under a broiler to melt the cheese and toast the roll slightly. This is a very unorthodox variation, but has been accepted into the canon by some because it’s good.