Cheesesteak ‘King’ remembered


Combine a generous amount of ingenuity with a heaping portion of dedication and you have a recipe for success. And it was what Harry M. Olivieri used to turn his business into a world-renowned hot spot.

Though the cofounder of Pat’s King of Steaks hit the culinary jackpot with his signature sandwiches, he knew patrons also needed a dash of kindness.

"He treated every customer as a friend and family member," Mr. Olivieri’s daughter, Maria, said. "The most important thing was that they would be satisfied and that they would come back. He would never put out anything that he wouldn’t eat."

Pat’s was not merely a job for Mr. Olivieri; it was a way of life. The bulk of his existence was spent at the establishment – whether arriving at 6:30 a.m. (even after retiring at 65) or chatting over cups of coffee with friends.

The community now says goodbye to a man who forever placed his mark on the cheesesteak capital. Mr. Olivieri died July 20 from heart failure at age 90. Spending most of his life residing on the 3100 block of South Broad Street, he lived his last days in South Jersey.

"To me, he was greater than the man that invented the wheel," said Maria, who decided to care for her father and Anna, his wife of 70 years, at her home in Brigantine, N.J., four years ago.

As the story goes, Mr. Olivieri and his brother, Pat Olivieri, operated a hot dog stand at Ninth and Wharton streets in 1930. Looking for something different to satisfy their appetites, Pat sent his brother to buy steak from the butcher. They sliced it thin, grilled it up with some onions and placed the concoction on a roll.

Unable to resist the aroma, a cab driver who was at the eatery vehemently wanted the sandwich instead of a hot dog – he became the first of many to fall in love with the creation after only one bite.

The immense popularity that would follow may have been because of "Harry’s personal touch to make sure the presentation was perfect, the quality was good," his daughter said. "Harry was a people-pleaser when it came to food or just meeting them and greeting them. Anyone that ever met Harry fell in love with him."

THE CREAM OF the crop would eventually meet Mr. Olivieri once the eatery gained fame. Performers like Bobby Rydell and Fabian would follow-up an act at the famous Palumbo’s restaurant and nightclub with another one at Pat’s during an after-show bite.

While Mr. Olivieri was deemed a celebrity himself in those days, the Southwark School grad and former carpenter was never one to toot his own horn, his daughter said. The mere thought, she said, would make him blush.

Frank Olivieri Jr., who is Pat’s current owner, fondly remembers how his grandfather would stop by for "his quart of half-and-half to take home."

This, of course, was after he paid a visit to his neighborhood friends on the corner. Card games, Frank said, were Mr. Olivieri’s forte.

"He loved to gamble and the casinos loved him back," the 42-year-old added.

With help from brother Pat, Frank said Mr. Olivieri made Philadelphia history. "When they were making them, they were unlike any other sandwich that was around," Frank said. "Fortunately for my family, the restaurant has staying power. It’s outlived two partners and countless family members and the cheesesteak lives on."

Some businesses now serving their version of the sandwich credit Mr. Olivieri for his originality.

"It was a great idea," Abner Silver, co-owner of Jim’s Steaks, 400 South St., said. "There have been takeoffs on it in different ways, different shapes and different forms. Those of us who have done well following the tradition or plan have to be thankful for it."

Enjoying lunch with her family outside of Pat’s Wednesday, Stephanie Horwath labeled Mr. Olivieri a "cultural icon."

"It’s our first stop on our cultural tour of Philadelphia," the Broomall resident said with a smile.

And it seems the eats continue to lure newbies to South Philly. After devouring her first cheesesteak, Jenny Ehredt of Altoona had one word to describe the sandwich: "Great!"

Mr. Olivieri’s final days, Maria said, were spent telling his wife how much he loved her. He also would describe the "old days" at Pat’s, something that always brought a smile to his face, to Father Raul, a companion and priest at a church near his home in New Jersey.

The icon also is survived by son Frank, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The funeral Mass was celebrated Tuesday at Stella Maris Church, 2901 S. 10th St.

"I’m going to miss actually being able to hold him, but no matter where I look or where I am, I know he’s with me," Maria said.