The Philadelphia cheesesteak is an iconic sandwich originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It consists of thinly sliced grilled ribeye or top round beef, melted cheese (usually Cheez Whiz or American cheese), and is served on a long roll. While this seems simple, the toppings and preparation of an “authentic” Philly cheesesteak have long been debated by enthusiasts and locals. The key question is: does the original Philly cheesesteak contain peppers and onions?
No, the original Philly cheesesteak traditionally did not contain peppers or onions. The original cheesesteak invented by Pat and Harry Olivieri in 1930 simply contained thinly sliced beef and melted cheese on a roll. While toppings like peppers, onions, mushrooms, and other additions are now common, purists believe a true Philly cheesesteak contains just beef, cheese, and a roll.
History of the Philly Cheesesteak
The creation of the now-famous sandwich is credited to Pat and Harry Olivieri, owners of Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia. In 1930, Pat was preparing hot dogs for lunch at his hot dog stand when he decided to make himself a sandwich using beef from the butcher and melting cheese on top. Customers began requesting the sandwich, which became popular very quickly.
This original version did not contain any toppings or condiments – just thin slices of beef, melted cheese, and a roll. The bread used was an Italian roll, which allows the juices from the beef and cheese to soak into the bread without getting it soggy.
Pat and Harry’s restaurant, Pat’s King of Steaks, opened in 1939 and still operates today in south Philadelphia. It serves the original version without peppers or onions to honor the sandwich’s history.
Spread of the Cheesesteak and Toppings
As the Philly cheesesteak grew in popularity throughout the 1900s, cooks began adding toppings and variations. Two of the earliest and most common additions were fried onions and green bell peppers. Some suggest these vegetables were added by diner cooks throughout Philadelphia and nearby regions to add flavor, texture, and regional flair.
Today, over 80% of cheesesteak vendors offer peppers and onions as toppings. But according to many sandwich purists, these toppings stray from the “original” and “authentic” version created by the Olivieri brothers in the 1930s.
Preparing an Authentic Cheesesteak
To make the original Philly cheesesteak like Pat and Harry Olivieri invented, the ingredients are:
- Thinly sliced ribeye or top round beef
- Melted cheese (typically melted Cheez Whiz or white American cheese)
- An Italian roll or long sandwich roll
Here are the preparation steps for an authentic Philly cheesesteak:
- Lightly coat the hot griddle or pan with oil or butter
- Cook the thinly sliced beef on the grill on medium-high heat. Cook for 1-2 minutes just until beef is browned.
- Place the cheese slices or Cheez Whiz on top of the cooked beef to melt the cheese.
- Cut the Italian or sandwich roll lengthwise without separating the halves.
- Scoop the beef and cheese into the roll.
- Serve immediately
Traditionalists insist that no additional toppings or condiments should be added. This keeps the flavors simple and true to the original.
Peppers and Onions on Cheesesteaks Today
While Pat’s King of Steaks and a few other establishments still serve cheesesteaks in the traditional fashion, most restaurants and cheesesteak lovers today opt to include peppers and onions. Some of the popular options include:
- Cheesesteak Hoagie: Includes lettuce, tomatoes, and onions
- Pizza Steak: Uses marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese
- Cheesesteak Special: Comes with sauteed mushrooms, peppers and onions
The table below shows the most popular toppings added to philly cheesesteaks today:
|Green Bell Peppers||65%|
While the original Philly cheesesteak did not contain any toppings besides beef and cheese, customer tastes have evolved over the last 80+ years. Peppers and fried onions are by far the most popular additions today. However, a simple cheesesteak with just beef and cheese retains its iconic status in Philadelphia.
Regional Styles of Cheesesteaks
Cheesesteaks have spread to restaurants and food trucks all over the United States. As the sandwich has expanded geographically, many regions have put a unique spin on the classic Philly version:
Uses grilled chicken or shrimp instead of beef. Avocado and salsa are popular toppings.
Adds giardiniera (spicy pickled vegetables) and serves the sandwich on a poppy seed roll.
Uses ground beef seasoned with BBQ sauce and spices. American, cheddar, or pepper jack cheese.
New York Style
Cooks the steak well done instead of medium rare and melts mozzarella over the meat.
New England Style
Replaces Cheez Whiz with cheddar cheese and adds applewood smoked bacon.
While the original Philly cheesesteak invented by Pat and Harry Olivieri in the 1930s did not contain peppers, onions, or other toppings, most places serve cheesesteaks with peppers and onions today. However, a few establishments still offer authentic cheesesteaks with just beef and cheese to honor the sandwich’s roots. No matter your preference for toppings, the cheesesteak retains its status as an American culinary icon.