Harry Olivieri, Philly Cheesesteak King, Dies

Harry Olivieri, credited with helping invent the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, has died at the age of 90. Olivieri and his older brother, Pat, began making Philadelphia's signature sandwich in 1933. The pair co-founded Pat's King of Steaks, selling the mix of beef and onions that still claims rabid fans. Melissa Block talks with Frank Olivieri, Harry's son, who still runs the family business.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

No trip to Philadelphia would be complete without an authentic cheesesteak. Now there's quite a bit of debate about just who made the first of the city's famed steak sandwiches and who added the cheese - we won't get into that right now. We'll just pass on news that one of the founders of the famed restaurant Pat's King of Steaks has passed away.

Harry Olivieri died yesterday. He was 90 years old. He was Pat's younger brother. The two started the business in south Philly back in the 1930s. Harry Olivieri's son Frank is still running the operation at 9th and Wharton. He says it all started with a hot dog stand his dad and uncle used to run.

Mr. FRANK OLIVIERI (Pat's King of Steaks, Philadelphia): They had a little stand on 9th Street that they used to sell hot dogs to mostly the cab drivers. And that's the way they made a living because they both had two jobs.

My uncle made sleds in the daytime and he used to work at the hot dog stand at night. And my father worked at the Navy yard and he used to work at the stand. And then every day they were eating hot dogs and hot dogs and hot dogs. And one day they couldn't go home to their family to have dinner, so my father went down the street and bought some steak from one of the butchers, put it on the grill, cooked it and bought an Italian loaf of bread and they made a sandwich out of that.

And the cabdrivers came up and they said, Harry, Pat, what are you guys doing? You know, what are you eating? He said well, we're eating our dinner because we're tired of eating hot dogs. And the cabdrivers said, well, so are we. Sell us one of those sandwiches. And that's how it started.

BLOCK: And that was the first cheesesteak?

Mr. OLIVIERI: That was the first, that was the first steak.

BLOCK: Right. There was no cheese yet.

Mr. OLIVIERI: No cheese yet. My father would not let me put cheese on the steaks because a lot of our people that came here will not eat cheese and meat at the same time because they're kosher. So we never did it and my father would not allow me to do it. So when he went away on vacation one time and I went out and I bought a pot and I put the pot on the grill and I put Cheez Whiz in it and I melted it. So after I made the steak, I would ladle the cheese onto the steak, therefore not putting it on the grill.

BLOCK: So that was your innovation?

Mr. OLIVIERI: That was my innovation.

BLOCK: Well what were they called? We all know them as cheesesteaks now. What were they called before the cheese made it into the picture?

Mr. OLIVIERI: Steak-wit. They would say - the people from Philadelphia would say - they wouldn't say steak with. If you said steak with, W-I-T-H, we knew you were from out of town. Now if you came up and said give me a steak wit, W-I-T, we knew you were from downtown.

BLOCK: And what would the wit be?

Mr. OLIVIERI: With onions.

BLOCK: Onions. Anything else along with onions?

Mr. OLIVIERI: Well, at the time we had hot peppers and the relish and the mustard and the ketchup and the hot sauce. It was all on the outside. You helped yourself to that.

BLOCK: This was your father Harry and his brother Pat. How is it that Pat got the naming rights?

Mr. OLIVIERI: Pat was older. Pat was nine years older than my father.

BLOCK: Did your father keep eating cheesesteaks through his life?

Mr. OLIVIERI: Well, we all did. I mean, it's fun. Right now there's 100 people in line.

BLOCK: How does it smell?

Mr. OLIVIERI: It smells delicious. You have to like onions, because the place smells like onions.

BLOCK: Who doesn't like onions?

Mr. OLIVIERI: Well, the ones that say give me one without.

BLOCK: Frank Olivieri of Philadelphia, talking with us about his father Harry, one of the co-founders of Pat's King of Steaks. Harry Olivieri died yesterday. He was 90 years old.

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