Cheesesteak fest: flop for some, fun for others

Despite mixed reviews, the first annual festival made a reporter recognize the city’s quirks and personality.

PaigeGrossThe first annual Philadelphia Cheesesteak Festival  left a bad taste—literally and metaphorically—in some attendees’ mouths, but for others, went in the books as another city tradition.

Hosted in Lot K of Lincoln Financial Field’s parking lot last Saturday, the day was a celebration of a Philly food staple as popular as Rocky Balboa and the Liberty Bell. As someone who didn’t grow up here, my first thought of the event was: “Are people really going to pay $40 to stand around listening to music, talking about and eating cheesesteaks?”

The part of me that has called the city home for the last three years knew the answer—absolutely.

In fact, tickets for the festival, which creators thought would be a “small event” of around 10,000 people, were sold out before some hungry attendees could even ask for them. estimated more than 25,000 people were in attendance. While more than 50 vendors were represented last Saturday, many people had a hard time fighting the crowds to stand in line.

Many vendors catered to the crowd who loves a classic steak with onions and either American or Whiz, but some went a little out of the box.

Steve Laurence, owner of Vegan Commissary, said his steaks don’t have an ounce of meat or cheese in them—they’re made of mostly onions, mushrooms, hot peppers and dairy-free cheese Whiz.

If for some reason you can’t eat cheesesteaks or you choose a vegan lifestyle, he said, his steaks will get you 95 percent of the way there.

“The other 5 percent is up to your imagination,” he added.

As someone who loves their steak “wit” onions and American, I’d beg to differ, but it was interesting to see how the Philly classic could be changed to cater to those who don’t vibe with the red meat and cheese formula.

Richard Rutenberg of South Philly and his friend Wayne Cherry of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania were drawing people into their booth to learn about the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Museum, a website dedicated to the history of the iconic sandwich.

In the future, they plan to make their museum mobile by purchasing a 1950s vintage camper.

“Cheesesteaks are a larger draw than the Liberty Bell and Historic Philadelphia,” Rutenberg said, adding that other parts of the world, like Amsterdam, have erotic and hash-themed museums.

Fighting the crowds to get to the much-loved Dalessandro’s tent, I could see the obsession with these steaks as hundreds of people stood in line. Steve Dalessandro himself worked near a sizzling griddle to cut his famous steaks into the festival’s one-and-a-half-inch sample sizes.

As the loud crowd surrounded him and his staffers scrambled to keep up, I was able to ask him the burning question —“wit” or “witout”?

American cheese, “wit” onions and long-hots, Dalessandro said.

Leaving the vendor area to explore other parts of the festival grounds was a relief. Along with sampling 10 different cheesesteaks, attendees could partake in cheesesteak eating contests, raffles, carnival games and listen to live music.

As I was passing by the stage, the announcer brought up “the big three” in the cheesesteak game—Tony Luke Jr. of Tony Luke’s, Joey Vento of Geno’s Steaks and Frankie Olivieri of Pat’s King of Steaks to sing a Cheesesteak Anthem.

“So many cheesesteak places, that span across this nation, this is where we make them so well,” Luke sang to a slightly intoxicated, but cheerful crowd. “It is the one food that we all love the most, no sandwich anywhere can even come close.”

The ode to cheesesteaks stuck in my head as I experienced the highlight of my day—the largest cheesesteak in the world.

The festival honored the sandwich by reclaiming a record previously set by a South Philadelphia native in Tuscon, Arizona, who made a 426-foot steak in 2011. Steve’s Prince of Steaks supplied the meat, cheese and labor to fill the 480-foot Amoroso roll with classic steak. Those who donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand could take a piece home.

Despite killer crowds and cramped spaces, the festival was truly a celebration—not just of Philly’s iconic sandwich, but of the city itself.

I left feeling like I desperately needed to eat something green and leafy in the very near future, and with a tinge of pride to have partook in the weird, very cheesy, very Philly afternoon.

Paige Gross can be reached at or on Twitter @by_paigegross.

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