Cheesesteak Final Four: 3 local legends and a must-try new contender

Ever had a cheesesteak at Barry’s? If not, you’re apparently missing out.

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Danya Henninger/Billy Penn
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Updated Dec. 3 with answers from Steve’s

Ever had a cheesesteak at Barry’s? If not, you’re apparently missing out — according to Billy Penn voters, it’s better than Dalessandro’s.

That’s right: The little-known Roxborough shop, which sits on a mostly residential block of Leverington just off Ridge Avenue, has bested one of the most talked-about cheesesteak houses in town to make it into the Final Four of our Ultimate Cheesesteak Bracket.

To folks who’ve patronized Barry’s, and seen the care owner Barry McGuinn puts into his steaks, the win — by a solid 59 to 41 percent — doesn’t come as a surprise. McGuinn isn’t surprised, either. He learned the craft from Bill Dalessandro himself, starting as a butcher all the way back in 1967 and eventually becoming good friends with the local icon.

“He was and always will be the best in my book,” says McGuinn, adding, “There are very many opinions about the best cheesesteak and they are all right.”

He should know — he’s tried them all. After he went out on his own and opened Barry’s in 1989, McGuinn spent his Sundays going on cheesesteak tasting trips with Bill Dalessandro.

“We would go around the city trying different steaks,” McGuinn remembers. “[Bill] was always looking to see if there was anything he could pick up, always saying to me ‘Look, see how they do this or that.’ He never thought of others as competition but as comrades in the cheesesteak business.”

Cheers to that. But in the name of fun, we’re gonna keep on narrowing down this contest until we can crown a single final winner. Joining Barry’s in the Final Four are three locally beloved giants: Northeast-born Steve’s topped Joe’s 58 to 42 percent; South Philly shack John’s (now open through 7 p.m., BTW) got the better of Tony Luke’s 57 to 43; and late-night South Street fave Jim’s swept past Campo’s 71 to 29.

To help make your decision in this penultimate round, we reached out for some intel from our remaining contestants. We asked each proprietor to tell us their favorite thing about the biz, their pet peeve, and their personal favorite way to eat a cheesesteak.

Cheesesteak with onions at John's Roast Pork

Cheesesteak with onions at John's

Danya Henninger

John’s Roast Pork owner John Bucci

Favorite thing about selling cheesesteaks: “That the recipe is my own. My grandfather started this shop in 1930, but they didn’t start selling steaks until later. My dad did like 4 ounces of frozen meat and a couple slices of cheese. When I took over, I changed all that.”

Pet peeve: “I hate when people start adding mushrooms and sweet peppers and all that. It’s so good with just cheese and onions. It’s not a cheesesteak with all that stuff on it — it’s a condiment sandwich!”

Personal cheesesteak habit: “American plus mild provolone, with onions. I’ve been trying to cut down, but I love cheesesteaks. I eat them from everywhere.”

Jim’s Steaks South Street president Ken Silver

Favorite thing: “Interacting with the customers — newbies and old timers alike.”

Pet peeve: “The weather and how it affects business. Snow storms in January, freezing rain in March, 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity in July… I can’t seem to be able to control the weather!”

Personal cheesesteak habit: “At least once a week. Always Whiz, and always Jim’s.”

Barry’s Steaks & Hoagies owner Barry McGuinn

Favorite thing: “Seeing the satisfaction of the customers — especially if it’s their first cheesesteak (it happens more often than you would think).”

Pet peeve: “Making a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz. Originally I would not do it — I’d sell them a cup of Whiz and they could put it on themselves.”

Personal cheesesteak habit: “Almost 50 years later I eat a steak almost daily. A steak with fried onions. Yes, no cheese. I do eat cheesesteaks, but it’s not my go-to sandwich.”

Steve’s Prince of Steaks founder Steve Iliescu

Favorite thing: “I was in the service station business before I opened Steve’s 36 years ago, and in the repair biz, you get comebacks. Now, the only comeback I get is when people say ‘I’ll have another!'”

Pet peeve: “When people ask why we have two windows. It’s to help you get your order faster!”

Personal cheesesteak habit: “When I was young, I ate a cheesesteak every day. Now that I’m 60, I eat fewer of them. When I do, it’s Whiz without, scooped roll. People ask me all the time which is better, Whiz or American. My saying: ‘Whiz is where it is, American’s where it’s at.’ They’re both good!”

And now, it’s time to decide in the dual battles of John’s versus Steve’s and Jim’s versus Barry’s. This is serious. Cast your votes below.

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