From the Land of Cheesesteaks, the joints that reign supreme

Note: This article was originally published on July 4, 2010, and has been updated to include newer information.

Philadelphia is a city of great eating! Not only does it have more pizza places than anywhere in the country, it lays claim to many food inventions, including strombolis and hoagies. Sure, the city hosts some of the nation’s top rated restaurants as well as several notable chefs, but some classic Philly inventions include soft pretzels, Tastykakes, and so on…but is there anything quite like the Philly cheesesteak?

Our top cheesesteak picks, all mapped out

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No, not the kind sold in food chains across the country. It’s the same name, but those are not the Philly cheesesteak. A true Philly cheesesteak has more Philly in it than cheesesteak. There might be different takes on the bread and the meat and the cheese, but the original cheesesteak came about some 85 years ago at Pat’s in South Philly. Its rival, Geno’s, is located diagonally across the street at the corner of 9th & Passyunk. The best thing about Pat’s and Geno’s, aside from the long sense of history, is the fact that they are open 24 hours a day. There’s a comforting appeal about being able to get cheesesteaks any time of day, even at 4 a.m. Sadly, because of their fame and popularity, they can continue to raise the prices without having to commensurately upgrade the quality of their steaks. Geno’s does, after all, have to pay their massive electric bills springing from their trademark neon orange signs.

Perhaps you had your first cheesesteak from Pat’s and Geno’s? I still remember my first visit to Geno’s, walking there on a cold winter day my freshman year of college. So, while you still may want to visit Pat’s and Geno’s for nostalgia, the other reasons above, or simply to see the wall of celebrities that have visited, there are many other good places to find tasty cheesesteaks. In my 20 years of eating Philadelphia cheesesteaks, I tried almost all of the all-time “Best of Philly” cheesesteak winners, from Philadelphia Magazine’s annual anticipated crowning (see list below) and many others that have generated any sort of hype whatsoever. So here’s a brief insider summary, though I will obviously not cover every good spot (if you’re looking for more, there’s been books written on the cheesesteak).

First up is John’s Roast Pork. John’s rose to prominence as the result of a now-famous school project where four high school boys and a Philadelphia Inquirer food critic sampled 23 of some of the better known cheesesteak places across the region and rated and reviewed them. After all of their hard work and good eating, they declared John’s Roast Pork the winner, and it is easy to see why. Their big sandwich is loaded with meat and the seeded roll is a nice touch. Needless to say, John’s is best visited on a day that you are really hungry. Why are they so good? As the owner says, it is because they make the sandwiches as if they were going to eat them. After only having work-week daytime hours for years they finally opened on Saturdays and even more recently have expanded their hours to later in the day.  Now there is no good reason not to check them out!

Then there is Tony Luke’s. This cheesesteak giant was featured on the TV show “Man vs. Food” and is often mentioned as Philly’s best.  They are my favorite non-chopped cheeseteak place, and I like to get a pepperoni cheesesteak there.  Tony Luke’s is seemingly expanding everywhere, from the frozen food section of the supermarket to Bahrain.

Lorenzo’s Pizza in South Philly is actually down the street from Pat’s and Geno’s, and its claim to fame is that it has won both Best of Philly cheesesteaks and Best of Philly pizza. It is also $2 cheaper per cheesesteak than its famous neighbors. Located next to the historic Italian Market, it is worth a visit.

Also in the area is two-time Best of Philly winner, Cosmi’s Deli. Their bread is from Sarcone’s, arguably the best bakery in town.  On a recent cheesesteak tour that I gave I was newly impressed by their establishment and would compare the cheesesteak to John’s Roast Pork, but without the long lines.

Moving away from South Philly, another good option for a fully satisfied steak that won’t leave you overwhelmed is Jim’s. Though not the most visited location of their four, I heartily recommend the original West Philly location. The steaks I’ve had from there are far more satisfying than their more popular (due to location) South St. site, and the lines are shorter too. Considering all the factors (such as convenience (open when I can get to it, close by, parking), taste, price, and Phillyness), it is my current favorite go-to place.

Another possibility on the northern edge of the city is D’Alessandro’s, one of many in the city to use Philly’s famous Amoroso rolls. This area is edge of the city version of Pat’s/Geno’s, as it too has a competitor within walking distance, Chubby’s. So, this is a good spot if you are looking to try two good places in one visit.

If you are a cheese lover, Mama’s Pizzeria is definitely the cheesiest cheesesteak of them all. If you want a retro feel and a milkshake to wash down your steak, try 2002 Best of Philly co-winner, Joe’s (formerly Chink’s), who just opened a second location. For the best college campus cheesesteak, I recommend Larry’s Steaks off of City Line Ave., where not only St. Joe’s students go, but also where members of the Philadelphia used to go to get the massive “belly fillers.”

In the debate for best cheesesteak, everyone has their own angle. Even the Philly Mag picks look not only for the best tasting steaks but for buzz-worthy selections. While there will always be a debate as to the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, there’s no debate that the best place to find a large sampling of standout cheesesteak sandwiches is Philadelphia, the land of cheesesteaks.

Bonus info

If you are a first timer visiting Philly, here’s how you order: choose a cheese–usually provolone, American or cheese whiz–followed by your choice of onions (or ‘Wit or Witout” as eponymed by the 2009 Best of Philly winner). I’m usually a ‘provolone wit out’, though you just got to go for the cheese whiz–an old school favorite–from time to time. That is basic protocol for ordering the standard cheesesteak, although you get variations; adding peppers or mushrooms, double meat, pepperoni (my fav), or get a pizza steak. If beef’s not your thing, there are chicken cheesesteaks as well as buffalo chicken cheesesteaks. Or you can go to one of those many pizza places and get cheesesteak pizza. For the best roast pork sandwich (try it with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone) hit up Tony Luke Jr’s or DiNic’s.

Also, after you’ve tried a good number of cheesesteaks you will notice that some places serve the meat ‘slab style’, whereas others chop it up. Steve’s Prince of Steaks is Northeast Philly’s most known cheesesteak place (and it has now expanded to Center City). It, like Pat’s and Geno’s, is not chopped. Some days you might feel like chopped meat, some days not. And some things just boil down to personal preference.  Personally, I find their steak not substantial enough for the price.

Select addresses

John’s Roast Pork, 14 Snyder Ave.
Tony Luke’s, 39 E. Oregon Ave., and worldwide
Lorenzo’s Pizza, 900 Christian St.
Cosmi’s Deli, 1501 S. 8th St.
Jim’s (West Philly), 431 N. 62nd St.
D’Alessandro’s, 600 Wendover St.
Joe’s, 6030 Torresdale Ave., 1 W. Girard Ave.

Best of Philly winners *

2014 Spot Gourmet Burgers
2013 American Sardine Bar
2012 Tony Luke’s
2011 Mama’s Pizzeria
2010 Johnny’s Hots
2009 Wit or Witout
2008 Cosmi’s Deli
2007 Steve’s Prince of Steaks
2006 Johnny’s Hots
2005 Tony Luke’s Beef and Beer
2004 Cosmi’s Deli
2003 Chick’s Deli (in NJ)
2002 Lorenzo’s pizza, Chinks
2001 Sonny’s
2000 Geno’s
1999 Tony Luke’s

* In some years Philadelphia Magazine selected multiple winners by county/region. For those years, only the Philadelphia winner is shown.