What is a Cheesesteak?

The cheesesteak is one of the most famous sandwiches to come out of Philadelphia. With its deliciously simple combination of thinly sliced steak, melted cheese, and a long roll, the cheesesteak has become a go-to comfort food for Philly locals and visitors from around the world.

What is a Cheesesteak

The origins of the cheesesteak sandwich can be traced back to the early 1930s in South Philadelphia. Brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri owned a hot dog stand in the Italian Market area when they decided to experiment with a new sandwich.

As the story goes, Pat threw some thinly sliced ribeye steak on the grill along with some onions, put it all on an Italian roll, and the cheesesteak was born! It quickly became so popular that Pat opened up his own restaurant, Pat's King of Steaks, which still operates today.

Cheese was not originally part of the sandwich. It was added later, first as provolone cheese in the 1940s by Pat's manager Joe Lorenza. The creamy Cheese Whiz that many associate with cheesesteaks did not come about until the 1950s.

Since those early days, the basic ingredients of steak, cheese, and onions on a roll have exploded into countless variations. But the original version straight from South Philly remains the favorite for purists.

Cheesesteak Ingredients: The Essential Elements

While customized versions of cheesesteaks have brought all sorts of add-ons, the traditional Philly cheesesteak contains just a few core ingredients:

Thinly Sliced Ribeye Steak

Ribeye steak is considered the gold standard when it comes to the meat. The well-marbled cut provides great flavor and tends to stay tender when cooked quickly on a hot grill or griddle. For an authentic sandwich, the steak must be sliced paper thin so it cooks up quickly. Partially freezing the steak for 30-60 minutes makes it much easier to slice super thin.

Cheese - Usually Provolone, American or Whiz

Provolone is considered the classic Philly cheese choice, offering a mild flavor that melts nicely into the steak and onions. American cheese is also popular for its easy melting properties. And the famous Cheez Whiz product gives cheesesteaks an ultra creamy and indulgent cheese sauce.


Sliced or diced onions are sautéed until soft and cooked through but not overly browned. Their mellow sweetness balances the richness of the meat and cheese.

Italian Roll or Hoagie Bread

An Italian-style roll with a crispy outer crust and soft inside is required for holding all the juicy fillings. In Philadelphia, Amoroso rolls are a popular local brand. The length of the roll is perfect for the long sandwich.

Optional Extras

Some other additions you may see in customized versions are fried onions, sweet or hot peppers, ketchup, pizza sauce, mushrooms, lettuce, and tomato. But purists say the original needs no more than steak, cheese, and onions!

How to Make the Perfect Cheesesteak Sandwich

Making an excellent Philly cheesesteak at home is easy to do with a few key steps:

  • Prep the steak by slicing it as thin as possible against the grain. Partial freezing makes this easier.
  • Cook onions in oil over medium-high heat until softened and lightly browned. Set aside once cooked.
  • Sear steak in a bit of oil on high heat just until browned. Season with salt and pepper.
  • Add onions back to the cooked steak and mix together.
  • Top with cheese slices and cook just until melted. Provolone works well.
  • Add to a hoagie roll, spoon on meat and cheese mixture, and serve hot!

The key is to cook the ingredients quickly at high heat so the steak stays tender and the cheese melts into everything. Follow those simple steps and you will have an amazing cheesesteak taste of Philly!

Popular Regional Variations

While the original South Philly version remains the gold standard, cheesesteaks around the country have developed their own regional twists. Here are some of the most popular variations:

  • The "California" Style adds grilled mushrooms and bell peppers to the traditional mix. This vegetable-loaded version is popular on the West Coast.
  • The Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak uses shredded chicken instead of beef, and buffalo/hot sauce for a spicy kick.
  • Pizza Steak features classic pizza toppings like tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and sometimes pepperoni baked on top.
  • For a Vegetarian Cheesesteak, thinly sliced seitan or portobello mushrooms stand in for the steak.
  • The Cheesesteak Hoagie has lettuce, tomato, and other sandwich fixings piled on, making it similar to a submarine sandwich.

There are also countless flavor twists ranging from Teriyaki to Taco cheesesteaks and everything in between. No matter what you add, the base of meat, cheese, and a long roll make it a cheesesteak at heart!

Where to Find the Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia

If you want the real-deal cheesesteak experience in Philadelphia, here are some top spots famous for their classic versions:

  • Pat's King of Steaks: The originator back from 1930, located in the Italian Market area. Thin steak and Cheez Whiz are signatures.
  • Geno's Steaks: Historic rival of Pat's, also located in South Philly. Known for their provolone cheese version.
  • John's Roast Pork: Local favorite for their sharp provolone version on Amoroso rolls.
  • Steve's Prince of Steaks: A popular "newcomer" in Northeast Philly known for quality meats and great service.
  • Dalessandro's Steaks: This Roxborough neighborhood favorite has devoted fans of their messy "cheese whiz with" version.

Trying a cheesesteak from one of these Philadelphia institutions is a must for any sandwich lover visiting the city. Just be prepared for a debate about which shop makes it best!


What is the traditional cheese for a cheesesteak?

According to many cheesesteak connoisseurs, mild provolone is considered the traditional choice, as it was likely the first cheese added after the sandwich was invented. American and Cheez Whiz are also popular options.

Do you add lettuce, tomato or mayo?

The traditional version contains only steak, cheese, and onions. Some customized versions add lettuce, tomato slices, mayonnaise, or other condiments, making it similar to a hoagie sandwich. But purists say these extras don't belong on a true Philly cheesesteak.

Can you use chicken instead of steak?

It's certainly an option, but the traditional Philadelphia version uses thin steak slices. Substituting chicken makes it more of a specialty spin-off rather than an authentic cheesesteak.

Should you cook the onions and steak separately?

Yes, it's traditional to sauté the onions first on their own, set them aside, then cook the steak, and finally combine the onions and steak together before adding cheese. This helps maintain texture.

What's the best cheesesteak roll?

In Philadelphia, Amoroso rolls are considered the ideal locally-made roll for cheesesteaks. The soft Italian-style bread helps contain the juicy fillings and provides the perfect bite.


With its thinly sliced steak, melted cheese, sautéed onions, and long roll, the cheesesteak has become an icon of Philadelphia's rich culinary heritage.

This simple sandwich has made many fans who will debate everything from the best cheese to the preferred preparation style.

Part of the appeal comes from the sheer indulgent satisfaction of devouring a piping hot cheese-smothered steak creation.

AGAH Productions
AGAH Productions