The Savory History: Unraveling the Etymology of the Cheesesteak and the D.C. Steak Sub

The cheesesteak, a delectable sandwich beloved by many, holds a special place in the hearts of food enthusiasts. While it may seem like a straightforward combination of thinly sliced beefsteak and melted cheese within a soft roll, the story behind its etymology is as rich and flavorful as the sandwich itself. Join us on a journey through time and taste as we delve into the intriguing history of the cheesesteak, and explore how it has a regional cousin in the D.C. area known as the "steak sub."

Philly, the Birthplace of the Cheesesteak:

To explore the origins of the cheesesteak, we must begin in Philadelphia, the city that birthed this iconic sandwich. The cheesesteak's roots can be traced back to the 1930s and the bustling Italian-American communities of South Philadelphia. The story starts with two rival establishments, Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks, both of which claim to have invented the cheesesteak.

Pat's King of Steaks - The Pioneer:

Pat's King of Steaks, established by Pat Olivieri in 1930, is often credited as the original cheesesteak creator. The story goes that Pat, a hot dog vendor at the time, decided to grill some beef with onions on his hot dog grill. A passing cab driver, intrigued by the aroma, asked for a taste. Pat served it on a roll, and the cheesesteak was born. Pat's is famous for its thinly sliced ribeye steak, onions, and Cheez Whiz – a classic combination that continues to win hearts.

Geno's Steaks - A Rivalry Begins:

Just across the street from Pat's, Joe Vento established Geno's Steaks in 1966. While Geno's claims to have perfected the art of the cheesesteak, their recipe closely mirrors that of their rival, with thinly sliced steak, onions, and cheese. This friendly competition between Pat's and Geno's has become a Philly tradition, with locals and tourists alike debating which establishment serves the best cheesesteak.  A key difference between Pat's and Geno's is that Pat's has the look and feel of a corner deli from the Great Depression. Everything is gray, except for some hints of red from faded Coke signs and sandwich wraps with red lettering. In contrast, Geno's mirrors the aesthetic of a Las Vegas casino, with their name blazing—almost literally, as fire flames are incorporated into the Geno's namemark—on electric signs that hang from the top of their building. 

The Cheese Controversy:

The choice of cheese in a cheesesteak is a topic of passionate debate. While Cheez Whiz is a popular option, others prefer provolone or American cheese. The cheese you choose can greatly influence the flavor and texture of your sandwich, making the cheesesteak a versatile culinary canvas.

The Language of Ordering:

In Philadelphia, ordering a cheesesteak comes with its own unique language. When ordering at Pat's or Geno's, you'll need to specify your choice of cheese and whether you want onions – for instance, "Whiz wit" means Cheez Whiz with onions, while "Provolone witout" means provolone cheese without onions. If you need help ordering, do not expect the employees of either establishment to be a source of assistance. You are better off asking the person standing in front of or behind you in line for help.  Employees from either shop will call you out for holding up the line so figure out how to order before you get in line. 

Beyond Philadelphia: The D.C. Steak Sub

While Philadelphia may be the cheesesteak's ancestral home, the love for thinly sliced steak sandwiches extends beyond the city limits. In the Washington, D.C. area, Bozzelli's, a family-owned restaurant, is renowned for a similar sub sandwich. However, they refer to it as a "steak sub." Much like the cheesesteak, the D.C. steak sub features thinly sliced steak, often topped with cheese and a variety of condiments, all nestled within a soft roll.

The etymology of the cheesesteak is steeped in culinary tradition and rivalry, making it a symbol of Philadelphia's vibrant food culture. Whether you prefer Pat's or Geno's, Cheez Whiz or provolone, one thing is certain – the cheesesteak continues to satisfy taste buds and spark lively discussions about its origins. And for those in the D.C. area, the "steak sub" offers a regional twist on this beloved classic. So, the next time you sink your teeth into these savory delights, remember the fascinating history that has made them an American culinary icon, both in Philadelphia and beyond.