It’s widely accepted that the sandwich that would become the iconic Philadelphia cheesesteak was created in 1930 by Pat Olivieri, with help from his brother Harry. Pat was running a hot dog stand at South Philly’s Italian Market and one day, tired of eating frankfurters, he decided to grill steak he’d picked up from the butcher, put it on an Italian roll and have it for lunch. A curious customer asked for one as well, and, as the story goes, he suggested that Pat and Harry sell these sandwiches instead of hot dogs (the original versions didn’t have cheese, which was added later).
Nearly 90 years later, the wildly popular Pat’s King of Steaks, a simple shop with a window known for its long lines, more than lives up to its name. The popular establishment, still in its original location, is now run by Frank Olivieri, who is a great-nephew of Pat and grandson of Harry. Frank, a classically trained chef, seems to relish his role as the guardian of this legendary family-run business.
“What I love most about work is the action of making the sandwiches and the hustle and bustle of Pat’s,” says Olivieri, adding, “the hardest thing is standing for the long hours of the shift, but that’s part of the business!”
Within this luscious sandwich is a delightful symphony of textures: Tender beef, oozing cheese, optional flavorful onions and, when done right, bread that’s both soft and robust. To speed up the long lines, Pat’s has a specific way they want customers to order.
First, you specify your type of cheese (such as Whiz, for Cheese Whiz, American, Provolone or Pizza Steak), then you say whether you want it “wit” (with onions) or “wit-out” (no onions). Olivieri recommends what he calls “the only way:” Whiz-Wit, meaning Cheese Whiz with onions.
Olivieri, who has worked at the shop since he was a kid and took over as owner in the late nineties, has watched it evolve from having the pickup window with its long lines as the only option, to incorporating Uber Eats, which helps customers satisfy cravings from their couches. “We are very fortunate to have lines at the window, and Uber Eats helps us fill in the blanks on slow, snowy or rainy days,” he says.
Olivieri says the cheesesteaks typically arrive piping hot, but if they need a little extra love, customers should place them in a preheated 250-degree oven for 5 to 7 minutes. For out-of-state fans needing a beef-and-cheese fix, Pat’s ships frozen sandwiches through a mail-order company. “It’s amazing how many we send out in a week,” he says.
A savvy business owner, Olivieri, who was the brains behind the famous ads plastered on Philadelphia city buses that proclaimed “Everything is better covered in cheese,” says that a big part of Pat’s successful formula is their ability to keep customers happy, which is what he suggests novice restaurant owners keep in mind as well.
“(For someone starting out) my best suggestions are hang in there, don’t overthink your food and understand that you are cooking for customers, not yourself, so you must mostly give them what they want if you want to pay the bills at the end of the week,” he says.
He also gives back to the Philadelphia community through his Spread the Whiz Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on initiatives such as partnering with public schools to educate kids about good nutrition.
When Olivieri does cook for himself, his menus are far more varied than cheesesteaks and fries. “I love to cook all things. I do lots of different types of food like Italian pasta, French herbed lamb, roast chicken and soups, but one of my ‘wows’ is my pecan cheesecake—it’s a showstopper.” He also has what he calls “a deep love” for pizza, has a brick oven in his backyard and studied to become a pizzaiolo, or pizza maker.
“I wanted it to be as good as possible, plus, if my day job doesn’t work out I have a new skill,” he says. Does that mean a Frank-Olivieri–backed pizza joint could someday be a reality? “A pizza restaurant in the future is a strong possibility,” he says.