Philly’s famous culinary specialty is the cheesesteak, a sandwich made with thinly sliced beef and melted cheese, with or without onions, on a long roll. If you’ve been exploring Philly, you’ve probably seen guides to the best or most authentic Philly cheesesteaks. Two restaurants that often show up in those guides are located across the street from each other at the south end of the 9th Street Italian Market district: Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, at the intersection of Wharton St. and East Passyunk Ave.
A decades-old rivalry has driven both restaurants (particularly Geno’s which opened long after Pat's) to add increasingly flashy signage and lighting, leading some locals to nickname the corner “Cheese Steak Vegas.” If you’re in the mood for a cheesesteak, this may be the best place to get one, depending on who you ask. Even if you’re not, it’s a unique South Philly phenomenon worth checking out as part of your exploration of the neighborhood, especially if you’re here in the evening.
Pat’s King of Steaks, which has been in this location since the 1940s, was founded by Pat and Harry Olivieri, generally considered the inventors of the Philly cheesesteak. In the 1930s, the brothers owned an hot-dog stand in the Italian Market district. As the story goes, they grilled thinly-sliced inexpensive steak with onions and served it in a hoagie roll, originally as lunch for themselves, but it became so popular with customers they were able to expand to this restaurant in the same location as the stand. Provolone cheese was later added by a manager at the restaurant, Joe "Cocky Joe" Lorenza. In the 1950s, American cheese and Cheese Whiz also became popular. The restaurant was passed down to Frank Olivieri, Jr., Harry’s grandson, in the 1980s.
Geno’s Steaks was founded across the street in the 1960s by entrepreneur Joey Vento, who famously said “If you want to sell cheese steak, you go to where they eat cheese steaks.” Vento, who said he chose the name Geno’s because “Joey’s Steaks” was taken, built his restaurant’s fame with neon lights and celebrity visits. When he passed away in 2011, Geno’s went to his son Geno, who was named after the restaurant. Pat’s King of Steaks did not add its first neon sign until 2014. Frank Olivieiri said the sign, which faces Geno’s, was intended “just to make them a little crazy.”
Cover image: viviandnguyen_, CC B-SA 2.0 via flickr.