Philadelphia is known for so many things — the Liberty Bell, the Eagles, Will Smith, Rocky. But standing high above them all is the iconic cheesesteak. A simple concoction of sliced beef, melty cheese and grilled onions on a soft long roll. Put them together and cheesy magic happens.
But not just anyone can make a perfect cheesesteak. An underreported ingredient in a great cheesesteak is (brotherly) love. That's why a cheesesteak never tastes as good anywhere else in the world as it does in Philly itself.
Here in Philly, cheesesteaks are a civic icon, a tourist draw and a cultural obsession. If you’re visiting, it is crucial to try an authentic Philly cheesesteak via @VisitPhilly @TonyLukeJr https://t.co/Z979s8tI8L #VisitPhilly #Foodiechats pic.twitter.com/AO2mujbG6a
— #Foodiechats (@Foodiechats) April 23, 2018
But where does one find the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia? Out of the hundreds of cheesesteak joints in Philly (one man has eaten at more than 500 of them), what's the best cheesesteak in Philly? Ask a dozen people, and you'll get a dozen different answers.
We'll break down the 13 best, but first, let's define exactly what makes an authentic Philly cheesesteak. Or, if you don't care about the difference between whiz and provolone (how dare you), jump right to our list of the best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.
First, if you're going to order, enjoy or even just talk about what makes an authentic Philly cheesesteak, you must first get the name right. The proper terminology is “cheesesteak." One word and nothing else. No need to start it with “Philly," that's understood.
And it's never followed by “sandwich;" a cheesesteak is a sandwich on its own, you don't need to qualify it just like you need not say “hamburger sandwich" or “hot dog sandwich." And it's certainly not a “steak and cheese," and, heaven forbid, never a "sub." The beautiful, simple cheesesteak is all you need.
Any place advertising a “Philly steak and cheese sandwich" is not selling an authentic cheesesteak.
— Michael MPH ???????? (@PhillyPartTwo) May 10, 2017
Of course, that's just the start. Any real Philadelphian worth their weight in whiz knows what goes into an authentic cheesesteak:
How many times do we have to tell these people? You don't put red or green peppers on your cheesesteak https://t.co/DSaQuRO1FH
— Ryan Hartman (@_ryanhartman) January 29, 2018
To most Philadelphians, deciding what the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia is a very personal decision. The cheesesteak shop one frequented while growing up often becomes a later-in-life favorite, and of course, everyone's favorite is also the best.
Every neighborhood has a steak joint that locals claim is the best. But there's a handful (OK, more like a few handfuls) of steak places that consistently rank among the top choices of both publications within the city and nationally, as well as by word of mouth by Philadelphians in the know.
— Michael MPH ???????? (@PhillyPartTwo) March 24, 2020
Below is our definitive list of 13 places we believe can lay claim to having the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, authentic Philly cheesesteaks from all corners of the city, according to a real Philadelphian. The list is presented in alphabetical order and not ranked because we like our friends and don't want a “best cheesesteak in Philly" argument to break out, even though it may be one of Philly people's favorite pastimes.
This might not be the place to start your cheesesteak quest, but if you just happen to have a couple of hundred bucks burning a hole in your wallet, then you might want to put on your best suit and head to Stephen Starr's Barclay Prime.
But why wouldn't you find a great cheesesteak at a high-end steakhouse? Barclay Prime's version certainly isn't a late-night beer sponge. It's made from wagyu ribeye steak, foie gras and a truffle-infused Caciotta al Tartufo cheese whiz that will run you $120 (including a complimentary half-bottle of champagne).
And if for some reason you're questioning the heritage of your cheesesteak, the Barclay Prime version comes with its own certificate of authenticity.
Center City and Passyunk Square may be Philly's famous cheesesteak hotbeds, but ask a local and many will tell you that you'll need to drive out to Roxborough in Northwest Philly for the best steaks in town at Dalessandro's.
Off Henry Avenue at the edge of Wissahickon Valley Park and a couple of minutes from Thomas Jefferson University East Falls (the former Philadelphia University), the narrow 60-year-old neighborhood joint offers a massive steak with finely chopped ribeye and hand-sliced sautéed onions on a fresh hoagie roll.
If you're not into the Pat's and Geno's tourist rivalry, commit your side-by-side comparison up in Roxborough with a steak from Dalessandro's up against one from Chubby's across the street.
Many cheesesteak aficionados would never put Donkey's Place on a list of best cheesesteaks in Philly. First, it's not even in Philly — it's across the Ben Franklin Bridge on Haddon Avenue in Camden. As in New Jersey. Second, they may not even consider it a cheesesteak, as it's served on — gasp — a round poppy seed Kaiser roll.
But none of that matters a bit when you try it, because it might just be the best cheesesteak anywhere. Don't believe us? Just ask Anthony Bourdain who famously called it “the best cheesesteak in the area" (or even ABC's “The Goldbergs" and the New York Post which both said the same).
Even if it doesn't look like the cheesesteak you're used to, this small dive bar piles high perfect griddle steak, caramelized onions and melted American cheese on a soft round roll that might change your cheesesteak perspective forever.
Everyone knows the steak sandwich was invented by Pat Olivieri of Pat's Steaks in 1933. But it wasn't until the 1960s that the late Joey Vento, who opened Geno's Steaks right across the corner from Pat's, added cheese to the famed sandwich to create both the cheesesteak and one of the nation's oldest and most famous restaurant rivalries.
Like its cross-street rival, neon-bathed Geno's is open 24/7 so you always have a place to satisfy your munchies. But unlike Pat's, Geno's uses thin-sliced ribeye on its steaks as opposed to Pat's chopped version. So, grab one of each and hold your own Philly steak legends taste test in the heart of “Cheesesteak Vegas."
If you're of the notion that bigger is better, then you're going to love the cheesesteaks at Gooey Looie's in South Philly. But fortunately, the steaks here aren't just super-stuffed with meat and oozing with cheese, they're really good.
The oversized portions come from an undersized establishment, as Gooey Looie's isn't even its own standalone store. It's a simple lunch counter inside a Pennsport grocery store, serving generous helpings (most of which will wind up on your plate) on a long roll that's at once crispy and fluffy.
If you're going to stay in business for more than 40 years across the South Street corner from the legendary Jim's Steaks, you better have a great cheesesteak. And if you're going to open a second location that's just a block and a half away from Jim's, you have to be doing it right. Ishkabibble's and Ishkabibble's II are 740 feet apart on South, one nothing more than a walkup window with a few stools and the other a full dining room.
But behind the iconic pink-and-yellow door they're crafting tasty chopped beef cheesesteaks with a variety of toppings rivaling those served at Jim's. And not only does Ishkabibble's also sling possibly the best cheese fries in the city, but the shop on South also holds claim to inventing the original chicken cheesesteak.
Pat's, Geno's and Tony Luke's are world-famous cheesesteak joints, but most real Philadelphians dismiss them as “just for tourists." But in the space between tourist traps and hidden neighborhood jawns is Jim's South Street, a steak shop both known and loved by visitors and also respected for an authentic, flavorsome steak by locals worth the wait in the often-long line.
Located in the heart of South Street, “the hippest street in town, " Jim's is the only big name steak place in Philly that uses top round for its meat (as opposed to the more common ribeye), a more tender and less fatty beef.
What Jim's may be best known for is its association with the Philly Taco, which is a frankenfood consisting of a Jim's steak wrapped in a giant size-of-your-forearm slice of pizza from Lorenzo and Sons across the street, a dish literally not for the faint of heart.
A relative newcomer to the Philly cheesesteak wars, Jimmy G's Steaks has quickly established itself as a steak worthy of the “best of" conversation. Located on North Broad (a relative cheesesteak desert), Jimmy's has a well-respected traditional steak but may be better known for two of its more original concoctions.
While most steak shops offer a choice between beef and chicken, Jimmy G's stands out with its unique lamb cheesesteak. And if that's not enough, Jimmy G's features the Philadelphia Cream Cheesesteak, a standard cheesesteak but with a roll slathered in Philadelphia Cream Cheese (a product ironically not made in Philadelphia).
No matter which steak you choose, no meal at Jimmy G's is complete without a side of Eater Philly's No. 4 “Must-Try French Fries in Philly."
While the original Northeast Philly location has been around since the 1940s, Joe's Steaks + Soda Shop's Fishtown store is just five or so years old — new enough to have skirted ever having to use the previous incarnation's questionable name.
Right in the heart of trendy Fishtown, Joe's is located across the street from Johnny Brenda's, ideal for a pre-concert meal, and kitty-corner from the Garage sports bar, which is a BYOF making a steak from Joe's a perfect F to BYO.
Despite being newish, Joe's Fishtown maintains the traditional style of the original, offering a classic cheesesteak from a seven-decade-old recipe inside a '50s-era vintage soda fountain serving old-style real milk milkshakes and hand-pumped chocolate Cokes, ice cream sodas, malteds and egg creams. But Joe's isn't afraid of the modern, either, serving one of the city's best vegan cheesesteaks, as well.
There are some that claim that it's the roast pork, not the cheesesteak, that's the true Philadelphia signature sandwich. Those people are wrong. But the good news is you can have the best of both worlds at John's Roast Pork. Here you can partake in the undisputed best roast pork sandwich in the city, as well as what some believe to be the best cheesesteak.
John's cheesesteak features heavily seasoned beef loin cooked to order (as opposed to an ever-steaming pile on a grill like most joints) served on a muffuletta-style hollowed-out seeded Carangi roll with a choice of sharp provolone or white American. No cheese whiz allowed on-premises.
John's began selling roast pork in 1930 but didn't add cheesesteaks to the menu until 1978. But the old school jawn's small cinderblock shack on Snyder Avenue in South Philly belies its culinary bona fides, earning a James Beard Foundation Award for being one of "America's Classics."
Sure, McNally's Tavern has been serving sandwiches since the Roaring '20s, but the family-owned bar in Chestnut Hill is best known for a cheesesteak-based culinary contribution called “The Schmitter."
Often misattributed to Phillies legend Mike Schmidt, McNally's Schmitter sandwich (actually named for Schmidt's, a customer's favorite beer) has all the juicy beef, gooey cheese and fried onions of a great cheesesteak, but with the addition of sliced tomato, grilled salami and a Russian dressing-type sauce served on a flash-broiled kaiser roll.
And enjoy it alongside one of the best craft beer selections along the tree-lined cobblestone streets of Chestnut Hill.
Lifelong Philadelphians might decry Pat's King of Steaks as “just for tourists" and claim just because you're first doesn't make you best. But even the most adamant corner steak place advocate must admit that Pat's still makes one heck of a cheesesteak.
If you can tolerate the long queues of tourists unfamiliar with how to order a proper cheesesteak, there's really nothing more Philadelphia than grabbing a whiz wit from the O.G. steak sandwich inventor and enjoying it on one of the red thatched-wire tables outside on its Passyunk Square corner location.
Open 24/7 like its flashier cross-street rival Geno's, Pat's invented the modern steak sandwich back in 1933 when Pat Olivieri, at the behest of a passing cab driver, started selling sliced steak and chopped onions on long rolls from his hot dog cart.
Today, the nearly century-old institution might be the go-to spot for visitors, but even for locals, it's the best place to grab a steak at midnight after a concert or a night out.
When he opened his now-beloved cheesesteak shop on Bustleton Avenue in 1980, not only did Steve Iliescu name it Steve's Prince of Steaks in honor of Pat's King of Steaks but because he believes his grill was the heir apparent to the Philly cheesesteak title.
There are many that feel his claim is justified, enough for Steve to open three other locations. But the original cash-only metal-and-neon diner-style trailer in the Northeast is still king — err, prince.
What makes a cheesesteak from Steve's unique is its heft. Steve's uses a thick-cut one-eighth-inch slab of ribeye, thicker than most of its competitors. Cooked on a flat grill, the weighty beef has a flavorful slightly chewy texture and is served on thin rolls with whiz, mozzarella, provolone or its signature melted American blanket that creates a juicy drip.
For your ordering ease, Steve's offers two order windows, one for steaks and another for sides and drinks, including their heavenly chocolate soda.
The last thing you need to know before you go out and grab one is how to order a cheesesteak. No matter where you get your steak, one of the best cheesesteaks in Philly or some neighborhood shop, Philly has a cheesesteak language all its own, a shorthand like a short-order cook has in a diner to make ordering more efficient.
i promise i'm not as pretentious as i seem when i'm teaching someone how to order a cheesesteak in philly
— corrie (@corrieoortman) February 17, 2019
Most places have long lines for the best steaks, so knowing not just what you're going to order before you get to the counter, but how, is important to keep the line moving. Thankfully, it's very easy and just four steps.
For example, if your full order is a cheesesteak with cheese whiz and grilled onions to eat in, just say “steak whiz wit for here." If it's a half plain cheesesteak with sharp provolone for takeout, order “half steak provolone witout to go." It may feel intimidating at the moment when all eyes are on you, but it's pretty simple.
Philadelphia is full of foods it lays claim to being the capital of — roast pork sandwiches, hoagies, soft pretzels, tomato pie, scrapple, water ice, crab fries, even snapper soup — but none is more iconic than the beauty of the cheesesteak.
— Eater Philly (@EaterPhilly) June 22, 2016
And whether you're a local, out of town visitor or new resident, it's up to you to decide what the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia is. While this list is not exhaustive, it's a good place to start. Happy cheesesteaking!