Obituary: Harry M. Olivieri / Philadelphia cheesesteak's co-creator

HARRY M. OLIVIERI | Died July 20, 2006

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PHILADELPHIA -- Harry M. Olivieri, co-creator of the original cheesesteak, died of heart failure Thursday at Atlantic City Medical Center in Pomona, N.J. He was 90.

As the story goes, Mr. Olivieri and his older brother, Pat, operated a hot dog grill at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue in Philadelphia in 1930, when Pat said to Harry, "Here's a quarter. Go to the Italian Market and buy a hunk of steak."

The brothers cut up the steak, grilled it with sliced onions and slapped it on a roll.

A cabbie drove by and asked what they called that sandwich. "I guess you call it a steak sandwich," they said and sold it for a dime. That was the birth of the Philadelphia steak.

Cheese was introduced 22 years later. First, Cheez Whiz was slapped on the steak. A few years later, they began serving it with provolone and American cheese and pizza sauce.

The details differ, depending which Olivieri family member tells it, but the fact is that Mr. Olivieri and his brother founded Pat's King of Steaks and the sandwich most people associate with Philadelphia.

Mr. Olivieri was the youngest of three sons of Italian immigrants. Born in South Philadelphia, he knew poverty as a kid. He dropped out of school, learned the trade of carpentry and worked in construction by day and at the hot dog stand at night.

In 1936, he married a woman from the neighborhood, Anna DeLuca, and they raised a son and daughter in South Philadelphia. She was a homemaker who prepared a pasta dinner for Mr. Olivieri every night.

During World War II, Mr. Olivieri worked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, his daughter said.

The brothers rented the building where Pat's is located today in 1940. They worked 15 to 18 hours a day frying steaks. Pat's Steaks was open 24 hours, and its reputation spread throughout the city and country. Lines snaked around the tiny building plastered with movie stars' pictures -- sometimes all night long.

In the early 1950s, competition came to the area. First, Jim's, then Joe's and finally Geno's opened across the street in 1966. The rivalry between the two establishments has fueled debate over who serves the best cheesesteak in Philly.

"People come to Philadelphia to go to Pat's and see the Liberty Bell, ... in that order," son Frank said in a 1980 Inquirer story. "Many people come to Pat's just to see if any celebrities show up."

More than 100 pictures of celebrities who ate at Pat's hang on the walls: Former President Bill Clinton, Jimmy Durante, Joey Bishop, Rodney Dangerfield, Fabian, Connie Stevens, Henry Winkler, the Bee Gees, Lou Rawls, ... the list goes on. Pat's was prominent when Sylvester Stallone ran through the streets of South Philly during the filming of "Rocky."

In 1970, there was a family squabble, and Pat Olivieri left for Southern California. His son Herbert, Harry Olivieri and his children, Frank and Maria, fought it out for ownership of the trademark and the restaurant.

After Pat Olivieri died in 1974, the business was divided up among Herbert, Harry Olivieri and his children, said Rick Olivieri, Pat Olivieri's grandson and owner of Rick's Steaks in the Reading Terminal Market.

Herbert Olivieri, who was a Philadelphia lawyer, died in 1998.

"Frankie eventually bought Harry and Maria out of the business," Rick Olivieri said.

"My father was an icon in his own town," his daughter said. "He was very humble. He received accolades with a blush. To me, he is greater than the inventor of the wheel -- a wheel can't make your belly full."


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