The Original Cheesesteak Sandwich Was Missing A Crucial Ingredient

In Philadelphia, the cheesesteak isn't just a sandwich, it's an institution. It is a symbol of the City of Brotherly Love, as much as Rocky or the Liberty Bell, and it has spawned thousands of food stands, carts, trucks, and restaurants around the country. The simple yet unforgettable sandwich contains chopped or sliced steak, cheese, and often onions on a soft roll with a crisp exterior. It may come as a surprise, then, to know that the original sandwich was missing something fans look at as crucial to its construction: cheese.

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Pat Olivieri is considered the inventor of the Philly cheesesteak. In the 1930s, he owned and operated a hot dog stand in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia. One day, Olivieri decided to cook up some scrap meat (not to be confused with scrapple, another Pennsylvania favorite) from a nearby butcher shop and serve it on a bun without any cheese. He only intended for this beef sandwich to be his own lunch, but a passing cab driver tasted it and loved it, as did Olivieri. From then on out, Olivieri began selling steak sandwiches from his hot dog cart.

Beefsteak sandwiches did exist at the time, but Olivieri changed up the seasonings and the bread, making the sandwich an original. He eventually obtained a building right across the street from his cart, which became the iconic Pat's King of Steaks.

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When did the cheese come along?

It wasn't until the 1940s that Pat's began putting cheese on its steak sandwiches, and Olivieri's establishment was the first steak sandwich business to do so, thus creating the cheesesteak. While the cheese choice in Philadelphia among locals today is predominantly Cheez Whiz (did you know you can make Cheez Whiz at home?), the original cheese was provolone. Pat's started using Cheez Whiz in the 1950s because of its convenience. Cheez Whiz, provolone, and white American cheese are all considered acceptable cheese choices by traditionalists.

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In 1966, Geno's Steaks opened right across the street from Pat's and would become Pat's major rival in the business, although Frank Olivieri (Pat's great-nephew) told Philadelphia Magazine that this competition was largely spurred on by the media. Still, the age-old question that Philadelphians often get asked is, "Pat's or Geno's?" These are hardly the only choices in town to get your cheesesteak fix; there are joints all over the city that serve up fantastic sandwiches, and each one is someone's favorite. Today, hungry customers can order cheesesteak sandwiches with additional toppings like mushrooms, marinara sauce (this makes it a pizza steak), peppers, and even tomatoes.

How to order a cheesesteak sandwich

Ordering a cheesesteak sandwich at a Philadelphia eatery requires a unique language. Sure, you might be able to order one using normal words, being very specific about wanting Cheez Whiz with or without onions, but if you want to keep the line moving and sound like you know what you're doing, you'll need to know some key phrases.

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If you want your cheesesteak sandwich with grilled onions, say "wit." And if you don't want them, it's "witout," and, no, those are not typos. If you want the classic Cheez Whiz, you need only specify by using the word "Whiz." Order the other cheeses by their full names. So, putting it all together, it's cheese first, then onions. Your order should sound something like this: "Whiz, wit," which means a sandwich with Cheez Whiz and onions. "Provolone, witout" would be a cheesesteak with provolone cheese and without onions. Any other toppings can be tagged onto the end. Rest assured, if you're in Philly, they'll know what you mean.

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