Cheesesteak wars: two South Philly institutions offer all the bells and whistles. And neon.

The battle has been the stuff of legend in South Philly for half a century.  Wedged into two triangular blocks formed through an oblique intersection (East Passyunk Avenue, a beloved corridor I have covered many times on this blog) are two of Philadelphia’s most legendary cheesesteak establishments.  They’re so close to one another that it makes the rivalry between CVS and Walgreens seem tame.  One could literally fire a stream of vacuum packed Cheez Whiz from under the awning of Pat’s and it would hit Geno’s.  The employees of the two establishments can yell at one another from within their cashier windows.  It’s rare that someone, visitor or townie, would list Pat’s without mentioning Geno’s, or vice versa.  They’re bickering conjoined twins.  And frankly, I’m not even sure they really have much beef with one another (did I just pun?!); it’s almost more of a symbiotic relationship.  They’re so close to one another that they have created a pedestrian node where Passyunk intersects South 9th Street, filled with throngs of people at any given time.  And while most anyone who has tried both would have a preference, the fact remains that, if you’re in the area and you want a cheesesteak, you’ll go to this hub where it all began, and if the line for Geno’s seems too long, chances are you’ll shimmy over to Pats.  And, again, vice versa.  They’ve created far more buzz in aggregate than either restaurant could muster on its own—enough that both operations remain open 24 hours, which is quite a feat in an era when, due largely to escalating crime concerns and diminished staffing availability. the array of 24-hour operations is shrinking.

Between the dueling cheesesteak institutions, Geno’s has always seemed a bit flashier—a value judgment that is almost objective.  It uses bigger signs, brighter lights, and bolder colors.  The late Joey Vento founded the enterprise in 1966 and named it after his son, who now runs it.

Geno's orange neon glitz to promote its cheesesteak

The five-alarm fire orange has long characterized the wraparound dining/ordering area at Geno’s.

And Geno’s strives for some level of vertical integration; immediately across on Passyunk, it features its central operating office and, since 2017, a corner storefront called Geno’s Gear.  (Prior to 2017, the storefront served as a showroom for Joey Vento’s motorcycle collection.)  And Geno’s Gear offers exactly what one might expect: “merch” with the big blocky capital letters of Geno’s Steaks emblazoned all over it, mostly in the company’s signature Pantone 165 shade of orange.  Mugs, hoodies, t-shirts, beer koozies, shot glasses—that type-a thing. 

Geno’s Steaks has never shied from controversy, taking firm political stances on hot-button issues long before it became customary.  In the mid-2000s, it adopted an English-only ordering policy, which it conveyed through signage in multiple locations around the orange exterior walls.  Many critics of the signage perceived it as a reaction to South Philadelphia’s changing demographics, having been one of the most consistently Italian-American communities in the country for decades.  By the 1990s, the large neighborhood absorbed increasing numbers of Asian and Latin-American immigrants.  Additionally, Geno’s Steaks very clearly took sides on the aftermath of slain law enforcement officer Daniel Faulkner, whose murder trial in 1981 resulted in a hotly contested death penalty sentence for Mumia Abu-Jamal.  The extensive trial and post-conviction activism have turned Abu-Jamal into Philadelphia’s most famous activist in opposition of the death penalty.  His publications on his own incarceration have helped elevate “Free Mumia” from a commonplace graffiti tag in Phily to a nationwide mantra questioning the viability of death penalty.  Although a Philly DA dropped pursuit of the death penalty in 2011, Abu-Jamal remains incarcerated through a life sentence.  Geno’s Steaks resolutely took an anti-Mumia stance, featuring a display that martyred Daniel Faulkner.  Today, over a decade since Joey Vento’s death, son Geno has mellowed considerably, removing all “English only” signs and instead offering a massive display of law enforcement patches from all over the country.

Not that taking a side on hot-button issues ever seemed to hurt business at Geno’s Steaks.  The restaurant clearly had money to burn on signage, lights, and a glossy finish.  In many respects, this approach isn’t surprising: Geno’s has had to assert itself as the competitor to Pat’s King of Steaks, which predates Geno’s by a good 35 years.  In fact, brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri broadly claimed inventing the cheesesteak in around 1933, having evolved their hot dog stand into something more distinctive.  It was successful enough to expand into a full-fledged restaurant, which today operates from the ground floor of a transformed house that occupies the entirety of a tiny triangle block at Passyunk Avenue, a salt dash from Geno’s.

Pat's understate cheesesteak sign

Historically, Pat’s King of Steaks has taken the more subdued approach.  Its signs are aged, less obtrusive, lacking neon and any of the glitz associated with Geno’s.  Pat’s implicitly uses the approach of deliberately allowing its signage to age, signaling to the public that the business has remained in operation for awhile.   The wraparound storefront space, where people queue at all hours (just like Geno’s), also clearly eschews the aggressive attempt to associate color with a brand.

The red on a white background just isn’t flashy, nor is the crudely rendered king’s crown, though the overhead banner of hashtags clearly can’t be all that old.  And those hashtag references clearly communicate Pat’s selling point: this business conceived the cheesesteak.  It’s the #Pioneer and #TheInventor.  Pat’s even earned a historic marker.

historic marker for the invention of cheesesteak

I’ll confess I”m not entirely sure this is the real deal, but it certainly looks like an authentic, state-sanctioned indicator.  It makes no reference to a state historic society, but then it begs the question: what does it take to earn such a plaque?  The judgement varies greatly from state to state, no doubt.

One accommodation that distinguishes Pat’s from Geno’s is that Pat’s allows customers to purchase their cheesesteaks with credit cards; Geno’s remains cash only at least for now.  (I suspect that, in the years ahead, this may be another example where Geno, the fils of the establishment, will compromise—but he hasn’t yet.)  Despite clinging to many traditions, Pat’s has begun to offer an example of a far more obtrusive compromise within the last few years.  This is now the view looking north, with Geno’s looming in the background:

Cheesesteak competition in South Philly: Geno's and a new sign for Pat's

Perhaps it reflected a purchase related to COVID grants, because Pat’s certainly didn’t have this gaudy neon sign when I visited many, many years ago—and it doesn’t show in the 2019 archived Google Street View photo.

I’m not going to judge the strategies of two competitions cheesesteak institutions for flourishing in a volatile economy; I don’t really care.  But I can only imagine that, among some die-hard Philly cheesesteak enthusiasts, Pat’s has abandoned its more unobtrusive approach to compete with Geno’s neon glitz.  Then again, do the locals really care?  This intersection has achieved landmark status because these two businesses remain ensconced in a neighborhood with an archetypal South Philly feel, even if comparatively few of the neighboring establishments are Italian in nature–not to mention some of Philadelphia’s signature mural art.

Just up South 9th Street from Geno’s is the Italian Market, another tourist trap characterized by green awnings that stretch across the entire sidewalks on both sides of the street.

As far as helping to preserve an Italian mama-and-papa feel to the neighborhood, both Geno’s and Pat’s have a lot of steak in the matter.  (Dare I pun again?)  But, increasingly, these indicators of Italian immigrant culture are exceptions rather than the norm.

Besides, greater Philadelphia offers dozens of alternative establishments that specialize in cheesesteaks.  And if one considers the other kitchens that might feature pizza, or burritos, or General Tso’s chicken, but also offer their own variant on the cheesesteak, the number of cheesesteak establishments climbs to the hundreds.  Maybe even over a thousand.   In most online customer reviews, Pat’s seems to earn a slight edge over Geno’s, perhaps due less to differences in quality and more to people review-bombing Geno’s for its brazenly political past or refusal to accept plastic.  Truth be told, I don’t know a single Philadelphian who rates either location all that highly; today they are almost entirely the domain of tourists.  In fact, if a local were to claim his or her favorite cheesesteak place is either of the establishments at East Passyunk, it would be a true mark of a Philastine.  (Yep, that’s pun number three.)

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6 thoughts on “Cheesesteak wars: two South Philly institutions offer all the bells and whistles. And neon.

  1. Chris B

    Pretty much any food truck in Philly can make a good cheesesteak…pretty much anywhere in SE PA and South Jersey has access to the key ingredients (good Italian roll and proper thinly-sliced beef). Last time I was at Independence Square, I stopped at a truck parked in front of the Curtis Publishing building.

    But, Pat’s. 🙂

    And they’re open 24/7 because there’s no such thing as White Castle in Philly. It used to be the only good choice for greasy food after the bars closed (at 2am).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      You caught me on this one before I’ve even had a chance to promote it! (As I thought you would.)

      Between the two, Pat’s seems to be a bit more the thinking person’s cheesesteak, and it isn’t cash-only, which is an increasingly big perk. But it now has the same Vegas-style neon as Geno’s, making it LESS distinct rather than more.

      From the perspective of Philadelphians that I know, it doesn’t really matter too much that Pat’s is original. It’s a good enough cheesesteak, but both places are resting on their laurels. All the more since, as you noticed, even food trucks can easily whip up a mean one. And, with national chains like Penn Station, it’s hardly a novelty the way the hot brown might still be in Louisville, or beef on weck in Buffalo.

      Both places are experiential now, much like some of the institutions in New Orleans. (Galatoire’s? Court of Two Sisters? Antoine’s? You go for the ambience, not for the food. Albeit all three of those places operate on the opposite end of the taste/prestige spectrum from Pat’s or Geno’s.)

      Reply
  2. jloshotz

    Never have I ever even tried Pats. Nothing against them, it’s just that every time I come to Federal and 9th, I know that if I WERE to try Pats, that’s one less I could have gotten from THE KING of Steaks….GENO’S. Orange for life

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Same is true for me and Geno’s. But then, I lived in Philly in the 70s when Geno’s was truly the rookie/upstart place striving to compete.

      Reply

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