Harry M. Olivieri, the co-creator of the Philly cheese steak sandwich and a Philadelphia legend, died on July 20 of heart failure. He was 90.
Born in Philadelphia to Italian immigrants, Harry was the youngest of the Olivieri’s three sons. He dropped out of school in his teens and learned the carpentry trade. In 1930, Harry and his older brother Pat opened a hot dog stand at 1237 E. Passyunk Ave., in south Philadelphia. One day, Harry grew tired of eating hot dogs, so Pat told him to go to the store and pick up some beef.
Harry returned a short while later, sliced up the steak, grilled it with some raw onions and piled the concoction onto two Italian rolls. Just as the brothers were about to dig in, however, a cabbie arrived for lunch and ordered a steak sandwich for himself. The brothers sold the customer Harry’s sandwich for a nickel, and officially launched Pat’s King of Steaks.
The Philly steak sandwich evolved over the years. In the 1960s, the Olivieris added cheese (provolone, American or Cheez Whiz), and various condiments (hot sauce, cherry peppers, ketchup, mushrooms, mustard, pizza sauce, homemade dill relish). In the 76 years since the sandwich made its debut, Pat’s King of Steaks has sold thousands “wit (onions) or without (onions).” Fans of the original cheese steak sandwich include musicians (Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls), actors (Jack Klugman, Will Smith) and politicians (Bill Clinton, Al Gore).
Pat’s King of Steaks is now an institution in the City of Brotherly Love. The 24-hour establishment, which sells food on a cash-only basis, was even featured in the film “Rocky,” starring Sylvester Stallone. Lines of customers frequently line up around the small building, even in the middle of the night.
Pat Olivieri died in 1970. Despite a heart condition diagnosed in 1972, Harry continued working at Pat’s King of Steaks almost every day until 2003. Harry’s son, Frank, now runs the restaurant.
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