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Philly's Signature Sandwiches: Cheesesteaks, Hoagies & Roast Pork
A History & Love Story Between A Proud City & Its Delicious Inventions
Here in Philly, cheesesteaks, hoagies and roast pork sandwiches are civic icons, tourist draws, cultural obsessions—and, most importantly, favorite meals. A visit to the city would be incomplete without diving into the no-flatware-required specialties. Here’s the lowdown on the holy trio of Philadelphia sandwiches:
What Is It?
A cheesesteak consists of a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced, just-sautéed ribeye beef and melted cheese. The art of cheesesteak preparation lies in the balance of flavors, textures and what is often referred to as the “drip” factor. In the past, the “cheese” of choice has been Cheez Whiz®. In recent times, American and provolone have gained ground as accepted alternatives. Other permissible toppings include sautéed onions, cooked mushrooms, ketchup, hot or sweet peppers.
The legend of the cheesesteak dates to 1930, when during one fateful lunch hour, South Philly hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri slapped beef from the butcher on his grill. A passing-by taxi driver sniffed steak, leaned out his window and requested his own. The next day, news of the creation had spread. Cabbies came to Olivieri demanding steak sandwiches. Soon, the vendor had opened up a permanent shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue, Pat’s King of Steaks, to sell his invention. Pat’s grills now sizzle 24 hours a day. So do those of Geno’s Steaks, the rival shop across the street, whose late owner claims to have first added cheese to the steak sandwich. For half a century, the two shops have waged a (mostly) friendly competition.
Where To Eat One
Nearly every pizza shop on any corner of every neighborhood in the city serves up the workaday delicacy. Here are a few notable spots in Center City and beyond, but first a lesson on ordering. Those who want a cheesesteak must answer two critical questions: What kind of cheese? Onions or no onions? Those who want Cheez Whiz and onions, ask for a “Whiz Wit.” Those who want provolone without onions, ask for a “Provolone Witout.”
- Cosmi’s Deli has the look of a corner market—and the cheesesteak cred of a champion. Hoagies are no small shakes here either. 1501 S. 8th Street, (215) 468-6093, cosmideli.com
- Dalessandro’s lays claim to the hearts and stomachs of Roxborough and Manayunk residents with its classic prep and done-right chicken steak. 600 Wendover Street, (215) 482-5407, dalessandros.com
- Geno’s Steaks, across the street from the oldest cheesesteak joint in town, is a formidable, fluorescent-lit competitor that’s gone roll-for-roll with Pat’s for a half century. 9th Street & Passyunk Avenue, (215) 389-0659, genosteaks.com
- Jim’s Steaks has three locations, but the classic smell of fried onions wafting down South Street makes that spot the most memorable. (Plus, Jim’s serves beer.) 400 South Street, (267) 519-9253; 431 N. 62nd Street, (215) 747-6617; 2311 Cottman Avenue, (215) 333-JIMS, jimssteaks.com
- Pat’s King of Steaks, the birthplace and home of the cheesesteak, is still owned and operated by the Olivieri family. 9th Street & Passyunk Avenue, (215) 468-1546, patskingofsteaks.com
- Steve’s Prince of Steaks calls Northeast Philly home, but also share its royal goodness—and famous American cheese sauce—in Center City. 41 S. 16th Street, (215) 972-6090; 7200 Bustleton Avenue, (215) 338-0985, stevesprinceofsteaks.com
- Tony Luke’s approaches world cheesesteak domination, with franchises from South Philly to Bahrain. 39 E. Oregon Avenue. (215) 551-5725, tonylukes.com
What Is It?
The hoagie is a built-to-order cold sandwich. A long Italian roll typically swaddles Italian cold cuts and cheeses, although hoagies can also contain tuna, roast turkey or roasted vegetables—truffled versions of the aforementioned need not apply. Being cold, the sandwich—erstwhile dubbed a “hero” or “sub”—can be garnished with fresh lettuce, sliced tomatoes or onions, and finished with a splash of oil and vinegar and a sprinkle of oregano. Mayo’s fine too.
Accounts of the hoagie’s origin vary greatly. Scholars still debate exactly where and when the sandwich was conceived. Here are a few of the hoagie’s origin stories:
• According to a 1967 article in American Speech, the word “hoagie” was first used in the late 19th or early 20th century among the Italian community in South Philadelphia. In those days, “On the hoke” was a slang term for a poor person. Deli owners would give away meat and cheese scraps on a long roll called a “hokie.” Italian-American immigrants pronounced it “ho-ge.”
- The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual tells of early 20th-century street vendors named “hokey-pokey men” who sold antipasto salad, meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced long loaves called pinafores, which enterprising hokey-pokey men sliced in half, filled with antipasto and sold as hoagies
- In 1925, a Chester couple opened the A. DiCostanza grocery store, which stayed open past midnight to accommodate gamblers. One night, a hungry card player walked to the back of the store when Catherine DiCostanza was cooking peppers and asked if she would make him a sandwich. She asked what kind of meat he wanted, and he said, “Put everything you have in the case in it.” She took a loaf of Vienna bread, sliced it open and stuffed it. He asked her to add the peppers on too. He left, and just one hour later, DiCostanza’s was full of hungry gamblers wanting the same kind of sandwich, which would later be known as the hoagie.
- Then there’s the hoagie legend according to Domenic Vitiello, professor of Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Vitiello has asserted Italian-American dock workers on Hog Island in the former Navy Yard (now part of Philadelphia International Airport) in the late 19th century transported lunches of cooked meats, cheeses and lettuce inside sliced Italian bread. This “Hog Island” sandwich later became the hoagie.
Where To Eat One
Every Philadelphia neighborhood and suburb has its go-to hoagie shop. Here’s a look at some of the most sought-after iterations in town:
- Campo’s Deli, a family-run institution since 1947, is great for hungry visitors in Philadelphia’s Historic District, thanks to authentic hoagies: Italian (salami, capacola, pepperoni, prosciutto and provolone) or Italian tuna (oil-packed). 214 Market Street, (215) 923-1000, camposdeli.com
- Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagie serves eaters who like hot peppers hot—from the heart of the historic Reading Terminal Market. 12th & Arch Streets, (215) 592-7799, readingterminalmarket.org
- Primo Hoagie has expanded extensively from its South Philly roots, elevating the art form with a long list of variants, including 10 takes on their hot-peppered Diablo and a Knuckle Sandwich (provolone and roasted peppers). primohoagies.com
- Sarcone’s Deli grew from the family’s famous nearby bakery, which provides the just-baked seeded rolls the deli stuffs with hot capicola, garlicky spinach, roasted peppers, sharp provolone, Italian tuna and much, much more. 736 S. 9th Street, (215) 922-1717, sarconesdeli.com
- Wawa is much more than the area’s preferred convenience store: It’s also know for its made-to-order Shortis and Classics, summertime HoagieFest and a record-breaking hoagie served on historic Independence Mall before Independence Day. wawa.com
What Is It?
As old as the cheesesteak but lesser known, the roast pork has gained acclaim as an under-the-radar favorite. The concoction contains the same, sometimes-sesame-seeded envelope of its siblings, but varies its contents flavor factor on the inside. The ham within is served hot after cooking overnight in a typical rub of garlic, salt, pepper, rosemary, fennel and a little bit of wine. It’s then layered with sharp provolone and a scoop of cooked greens—sautéed spinach or broccoli rabe—but never kale.
The roast pork sandwich has roots in the cuisine of the Abrussezzi people who emigrated en masse to Philadelphia, especially South Philly. Dominico Bucci was among them, leaving Italy as a teenager to become one of the city’s first caterers. At first, Bucci cooked at home for weddings and special occasions.
In 1930, he built a small wooden shack on a sliver of riverside land leased from the B&O Railroad. There, on Snyder Avenue, he offered stevedores just two menu items: pork or meatball sandwiches (and, on occasion, an old-fashioned combination of the two). Today, his grandson John Bucci, Jr. runs the family business, named John’s Roast Pork after Dominico’s late son. Today, John, Jr. runs the business alongside his wife and 83-year-old mother. It’s John, Jr. who added sharp provolone and his mom’s sautéed spinach to the sandwich back in 1987, creating an Italian classic that, in many estimations, deserves top billing alongside the cheesesteak (which, by they way, John’s Roast Pork is known for too).
Where To Eat One:
The sandwich that takes the longest to make comes in versions that are classic and creative. Here are some must-tries.
- DiNic’s Roast Pork draws a line around its Reading Terminal Market booth every day for its signature creation—as well as its rich Italian pulled pork, inspired by owner Joey Nicolosi’s great grandfather’s recipe. 11th & Filbert Streets, (215) 923-6175, tommydinics.com
- John’s Roast Pork is the family-owned and operated originator of the roast pork—and thoroughly worth the trip deep into South Philly to experience. Also known for its cheesesteak—and crusty seeded rolls from longstanding Carangi Bakery. 14 E. Snyder Avenue, (215) 463-1951, johnsroastpork.com
- High Street on Market might be the highest-falutin’ of the bunch, but its 100% homemade version, featuring kimchi-like fermented broccoli rabe on an artisan roll, packs just as much of a punch. 308 Market Street, (215) 625-0988, highstreetonmarket.com
- Paesano’s Philly Style, another relative newcomer, makes its Arista with shredded suckling pig, long hots, broccoli rabe and a sesame roll. 152 W. Girard Avenue, (267) 886-9556; 1017 S. 9th Street, (215) 440-0371; 2012 N. Broad Street, (267) 639-3159, paesanosphillystyle.com
- Tony Luke’s, an international sensation, was founded on its roast pork—which its founders layer with deliciously bitter broccoli rabe instead of sautéed spinach. 39 E. Oregon Avenue, (215) 551-5725, tonylukes.com
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On Greater Philadelphia’s official visitor website and blog, visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com, visitors can explore things to do, upcoming events, themed itineraries and hotel packages. Compelling photography and videos, interactive maps and detailed visitor information make the sites effective trip-planning tools. Along with Visit Philly social media channels, the online platforms communicate directly with consumers. Travelers can also call and stop into the Independence Visitor Center for additional information and tickets.
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