A long, crusty Italian roll cradles thinly sliced, sautéed ribeye steak, dripping with meat juices and messy, melted cheese. That's a Philly Cheesesteak. It's heavy. It's simple. And ooooh, boy, is it savory.
Too many additions, subtractions, or substitutions, and that Pennsylvania title will be yanked from you, transforming your meal into a more generic steak and cheese sandwich.
In a Philly cheesesteak, the cheese of choice is Cheez Whiz, but American and provolone are common substitutions, according to Philadelphia's official visitor and travel site. "The art of cheesesteak preparation lies in the balance of flavors, textures, and what is often referred to as the “drip” factor," says visitphilly.com. "Other toppings may include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, ketchup, and hot or sweet peppers."
A steak and cheese sandwich is whatever doesn't qualify as a Philly cheesesteak, in your eyes. There are, however, some rules to judge by: If the steak isn't ribeye, if the ribeye isn't sliced or chopped, if the cheese isn't melty, and if it uses completely different bread than anything resembling a hoagie roll or crackly, long Italian roll, both sliced in half lengthwise — then you might be dealing with something other than a Philly Cheesesteak, capital 'P,' capital 'C.' Ground steak meat, steak burger patties, or pounded-thin steak filets? No. Some sandwich shops also offer a cheesesteak hoagie, a hybrid version (traditionalists gasp!) that combines the cheesesteak with cold hoagie dressings like lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise.
The celebrated Philadelphia sandwich was invented by Pat Olivieri, a South Philly hot dog vendor in 1930, who wanted something different for lunch one day, so he cooked some steak he bought from a nearby butcher. A cab driver nearby saw and smelled Olivieri's lunch, and he wanted a piece of the action. Soon, Olivieri's steak sandwiches grew so popular he opened his own shop, Pat's King of Steaks, and later added melty cheese. In the 1960s, Geno's Steaks opened across the street from Pat's, and the much-hyped rivalry waged ever since. "The degree to which said beef is chopped and the type of cheese to be melted, however, is where there remains plenty of debate among cheesesteak aficionados," says visitphilly.com.
There are those who prefer sliced and then finely chopped beef, and those who demand coarsely chopped meat. Restaurateur and Food Network chef Bobby Flay likes making his own provolone cheese sauce, caramelizing the onions, and including sautéed peppers and mushrooms. Most cheesesteak lovers agree you must chill the ribeye in the freezer for 30 to 45 minutes, not until frozen but stiff enough to slice while raw, so it cooks faster.
Try some of our versions:
The bell pepper and white button mushrooms are optional in this version of Philadelphia's favorite sandwich, but the rib-eye steak and hoagie rolls are not. You can swap out the provolone for Cheez Whiz too, if that's what makes you happy. Get our easy Philly cheesesteak recipe.
This sandwich looks so similar to a Philly cheesesteak, melty provolone and all, but it uses flank steak and ciabatta bread instead of boneless rib-eye and a hoagie. It's also a way to use the bourbon-marinated flank steak you made for dinner the night before. Get our bourbon steak sandwich recipe.
Instead of using Cheez Whiz or melted provolone slices, you make your own cheese sauce, Belcampo style. Get our Belcampo's Philly Cheesesteak recipe.
This recipe transforms the meat-and-potatoes aesthetic into a hearty appetizer or snack that could even be a meal, with a light salad on the side. Get our Philly cheesesteak potato skins recipe.
If you're in the mood for steak and cheese in any form, try this steak quesadilla that's stuffed with chipotle-rubbed skirt steak and oozing with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. Get our steak quesadilla recipe.