The cheesesteak, known outside the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area as the Philadelphia cheesesteak, Philly cheesesteak, or simply a Philly is a sandwich principally made up of thinly sliced pieces of steak and melted cheese on a long roll. A cheesesteak without cheese is locally called a steak sandwich or a Philly Steak in other parts of the country.
The cheesesteak is a comfort food for natives of the Philadelphia region. It was invented in the city in 1930 and is considered to be a city icon along with other foods such as Tastykakes, water ice, the Philadelphia soft pretzel, hoagies, and scrapple.
Pat's website calls the preparation a "steak sandwich" (not a "cheesesteak") and says that "as the years passed, both employees and customers alike demanded change ... cheese was added. Joe Vento of Geno's Steaks, which is located directly across the street from Pat's, claims that he was the first to add cheese.
In 1952, Pat's added Cheez Whiz to their sandwich ingredients.
Some locations with large volumes will griddle the steak in a large pile, chopping and flipping the steak with a large metal spatula until cooked to a light brown. The thicker pieces of steak, due to their need to be cooked more thoroughly, will be set in a single layer on the griddle and flipped until brown.
Cheese can be added at the last stage of griddling, placed on the bread before the meat is added, or ladled on top of the sandwich as the last step.
For adding cheese while griddling, the steak is shaped on the griddle so that the roll could cover it, the cheese is laid on top and allowed to melt for a minute, then the roll is placed over the steak and the spatula is used to scoop the entire contents into the roll.
In another method, the cheese is placed along the inner sides of the sliced roll and is either melted beforehand by a warmer or is melted by the heat of the freshly cooked steak. Lastly, melted cheese or Cheez Whiz can be ladled on top of the sandwich.
The sandwich is served in a long roll, typically a 6-inch or 12-inch (15 or 30 cm) loaf of Italian bread (also known in Philly as a hoagie roll). The bread is sliced lengthwise to form a cradle, similar to a hot dog bun.
In the Philadelphia area, cheesesteaks are often made with rolls from Vilotti-Pisanelli or Amoroso's Baking Company.) Locals believe there is something about "Schuylkill Punch", the nickname for Philadelphia's drinking water, that, by its alkalinity, makes the rolls distinctively flaky and airy.
A cheesesteak may include other optional ingredients such as fried onions, sautéed green peppers, and mushrooms. Some menus include mayonnaise, hot sauce, ketchup, or pizza sauce (a Pizza Steak, often with mozzarella as the cheese).
Cheez Whiz, first marketed in 1952, was not yet available for the original 1930 version, but it has come to achieve some popularity.
A 1986 New York Times article called Cheez Whiz "the sine qua non of cheesesteak connoisseurs." In a 1985 interview, Frank Olivieri (Pat Olivieri's nephew) said that he uses "the processed cheese spread familiar to millions of parents who prize speed and ease in fixing the children's lunch for the same reason, because it is fast.
A recipe published by Pat's King of Steaks says, with regard to cheese, "We recommend Cheez Whiz; American or Provolone works fine. The proprietor of Geno's, however, considers provolone or American cheese more authentic, but Pat's introduction of Cheese Whiz allowed it to quickly become a "topping of choice."
American cheese, with its mild flavor and medium consistency, is another favorite on cheesesteaks. Some places pre-melt the American cheese to achieve a Cheez Whiz–like consistency, while others just put freshly cut slices over the meat, letting it slightly melt under the heat.
Mozzarella cheese is also used, but mainly as a "pizza steak" and is rarely used as a regular steak.
Television chef and food scientist Alton Brown recommends Mimolette, a French cheese with a similar color and texture to cheddar. His Chain of Bull Cheese Steaks recipe uses Mimolette and offers no suggestions for alternatives..
Numerous variations on the basic cheesesteak theme are offered by various vendors.
A steak sandwich topped with pizza sauce and sliced or crumbled mozzarella constitutes a pizza steak, which is often placed briefly in a pizza oven or under a broiler to melt and lightly brown the cheese. Some establishments offer sliced pepperoni as an optional topping, to make a pepperoni pizza steak.
A cheesesteak made with chicken is called a chicken cheesesteak and can be served with honey mustard. When served with buffalo wing sauce and bleu cheese dressing, it is called a buffalo chicken cheesesteak, drawing culinary inspiration from two cities in the United States.
Some South Philadelphia cheesesteak stands provide a defined protocol for ordering, consisting of the desired cheese and whether fried onions should ("wit") or should not ("witout," "widdout") be added. A common order in South Philadelphia is "Whiz, wit", meaning a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and fried onions. "Wit" (or "wid") is an approximation of the South Philadelphian pronunciation of "with," which is how the word is actually spelled on some menus. For example, "Give me a provo wit," is an order for a cheesesteak with provolone cheese and fried onions on top. Orders for additional toppings, such as sautéed mushrooms or peppers, are typically done through a change of the name of the sandwich; i.e. "I'd like a pepper whiz wit", for a sandwich with peppers and onions and Cheez Whiz.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, candidate John Kerry ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese in South Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Daily News, "reporters snickered," because "in Philadelphia, ordering Swiss on a cheesesteak is like rooting for Dallas at an Eagles game. It isn't just politically incorrect; it could get you a poke in the nose.
In 2005, before Super Bowl XXXIX, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney turned down a cheesesteak wager by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell in the traditional pre-Super Bowl bet between leaders of the states represented in the game. Rendell later told reporters, "He said the cheesesteak had no nutritional value.
Many Philadelphians proclaim allegiance to a particular steak shop as the maker of "the best" cheesesteak. There is much lively debate to be had in Philadelphia over what makes one establishment's cheesesteak better than another's. Street vendors also prepare and sell cheesesteaks from trucks and carts in and around the city, especially on the larger college campuses.
As Patti LaBelle notes, "when we were growing up, Llona and I always went to the same little shop to get ours—this twenty-four-hour hole-in-the-wall that made the best ones in Philly.
Another missing element in most cheesesteaks outside Philadelphia is the use of Vilotti-Pisanelli or Amoroso's rolls, which are used by most cheesesteak places in Philadelphia. There are, however, some restaurants outside of Philadelphia that have Amoroso rolls or dough shipped to them.