Whenever people ask me where they should get a cheesesteak when they come to visit Philly, I always have the simplest answer for them: nowhere. I’ll get a lot of guff for my outspoken dislike of the cheesesteak–especially since I’ll eat just about anything–but I really don’t see what’s special about some garbage meat put in a bun and topped with melted cheese whiz. The city can offer you so much more.
For instance, did you know the stromboli was invented in Philadelphia in the 50s? Sure, it’s basically just a rolled up pizza, but pizza is awesome so you can’t go wrong. And Philadelphia is filled with the kind of Italians who have never been to Italy and love to pronounce things wrong (“Get some muht-zuh-rell when you go buy the gabbagool!”), so you know they do Italian food right.
And speaking of pizza-like concoctions, there is the even-better-than-stromboli tomato pie. It took me a few years after moving to Philly to try it, because when someone mentioned “tomato pie” I immediately thought of apple pie but with tomatoes, and did not want that. As it turns out, tomato pie is pizza-adjacent, with a thick crust topped with a sweet red sauce (or as they incorrectly call it here, “gravy”), often sprinkled with some parm powder, and best served at room temperature, or straight out of the fridge the next day. Plenty of places have good tomato pie, but Corropolese Deli is where you’ll get the most consensus on the best. And they’ve been doing it for almost 100 years.
Also going strong for nearly 100 years is Termini Brothers, the (originally) South Philly Italian bakery that can really do no wrong. They can especially do no wrong if you get their top item, a cannoli. Eat it while you’re walking around the city; it’ll be worth however many thousands of calories it is. Another Philly institution worth checking out is DiBruno Bros., home of any high-end food item you could desire, but especially focused on cheese.
If you’re avoiding the cheesesteak but still want a sandwich, you have two options. Philadelphia, for whatever reason, does an Italian hoagie better than pretty much anywhere in the country. Whether it’s the bread (Sarcone’s or Liscio’s rolls, you savages) or the toppings, any sandwich place worth its salt will have a good one. Just remember, if you want a traditional Italian hoagie, pass on the mayo and stick with oil and whatever hot pepper mixture they have.
The other sandwich option is the creme de la creme of Philadelphia food, and what should be the real shining star: the roast pork sandwich. Slow roasted pork, topped with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe, should really be the city’s namesake sandwich. The best are from John’s Roast Pork or the more accessible DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market (which itself is worth spending time wandering through), whose roast pork sandwich was named the best sandwich in America by the Travel Channel.
I understand, though, you may want to get a cheesesteak just for the novelty of eating one in Philadelphia. If you do that, have some modicum of self respect and keep a few things in mind: for one, the name basically describes what you should get on it. Cheese and steak. Onions are acceptable, but for the love of god leave off the green peppers that everyone outside of Philadelphia seems to insist on adding. Also, it’s just a cheesesteak: there is no other version in another city that you need to differentiate, so it’s not a Philadelphia cheesesteak, a Philly cheesesteak, or a Philly. There is only one; there is only cheesesteak. Finally, avoid the tourist traps of Pat’s and Geno’s, aka Cheesesteak Vegas. Their signs and lights and rules for ordering are obnoxious.
Philadelphia is such a great food city, with a lot great food that is inherently Philadelphian, so I’m not sure how the city was saddled with the cheesesteak. If you’re going to come to visit and you want some real Philly food, I beg of you: skip the scrap meat and plastic cheese.