Jim's West has reopened at 62nd and Noble streets to the delight of neighborhood customers who long patronized the original. Owner Cortez Johnson grew up in the area, and returned to revitalize a corner and give back to his community. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

The line outside of Jim’s West began forming 45 minutes before business hours on a Friday morning. By the time doors opened at noon, the number of people waiting had hit double digits. 

Some were repeat customers to the week-old business, like Patricia R., back for a second time with her 33-year-old granddaughter, also named Patricia. Some were first-timers, like Dude Love, who stood third in line and loudly counted down the minutes till the corner steak shop opened.

“This is an exciting time,” said Love, a 51-year-old who declined to give his real name. “I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager.”

Same spot, different Jim’s. The most recent incarnation was run by the Proetto family from 1966 to 2019, after they bought it from the original proprietors, who opened Jim’s Steaks at 62nd and Noble streets in 1939. 

New owner Cortez Johnson has made a few updates to the menu in the revitalized space. Cheese selections now include Cooper sharp (a better American) and Swiss (paging John Kerry), plus housemade banana puddings for dessert.

There are combo options: the $20 cheesesteak special comes with a pudding and a drink while the $15 hoagie special includes a bag of chips and a juice or soda. 

There are new cheese options for cheesesteaks, which are fried in beef lard and also come in a combo with banana pudding and a drink. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Another change: pork items have been removed from the menu, and the lard used for cooking is now strictly beef. A kosher hoagie, with corned beef, turkey, kosher salami, pastrami, and Swiss, is also a new addition.

Change beyond that has been minimal. Rolls still come from Amoroso’s, beef steak cuts are still ribeye, and the mud sauce is still “super hot, much hotter than hot sauce,” Johnson warned.

Moving beyond the drama

Shuttered for the last four years, the building at 431 N. 62nd St, was sold in March to Johnson, who reopened it as Jim’s West two weeks ago and was promptly sued for alleged unauthorized name usage by Carl Proetto, son of the previous proprietor and current owner of Jim’s Steaks in Delco.

For customer Love, the conflict and media coverage of it amounted to nothing but “meaningless negativity” that he said missed a key point.

“We don’t care about the name,” the lifelong neighborhood resident explained. The location has a decades-long reputation for delivering “a good, greasy cheesesteak,” he said. “That’s why people come here.”

Johnson won the court case, representing himself and convincing the judge that there was nothing in the contracts that prevented him from running his business under its legally distinct name. 

He feels the court battle could have been avoided. “This could’ve been West Philly Steaks, or we could’ve named it something else,” the 44-year-old owner told Billy Penn. He’s brought back much of the original kitchen staff and “the building is a staple, so people are going to come here anyway.” 

Johnson’s uncle had worked at the West Philly Jim’s Steaks for several years, he said, forming the backbone of the relationship with the Proettos that ultimately led to his purchase of the property.

It’s one of the reasons the injunction caught Johnson off guard. “I was baffled,” he recalled, especially since he claimed two of the three Proetto brothers — the two with whom he had negotiated the purchase — “gave us their blessings and encouraged us to use that name, Jim’s West, because it doesn’t say Jim’s Steaks or [use their] logo.”

Jim’s West has seen lines out the door since opening. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Johnson is eager to move away from the issue, as he is the coverage focusing on the other big change he’s brought to the establishment: heavily armed security outside its doors.

“All it is, is trying to protect the community,” he said. “To allow the community to feel safe.”

Johnson cited the increase in violence the city has witnessed in the past few years, and a desire to provide security for his store and safety for his customers, particularly older people and those living with disabilities — groups he said make up a significant percentage of his patrons.

“One or two people have said ‘Maybe this is a bit much,’” he admitted, but said most of his customers greet the enhanced security with smiles. “They feel protected. They don’t have to worry about getting robbed.”

It’s also a safeguard for his own staff, he explained, many of whom are older and end their shifts late at night. The guards outside of Jim’s West all possess “extreme training,” Johnson said, declining to elaborate.

‘A quick learner’ with a desire to give back

Johnson came to the restaurant industry with “no experience at all,” he said, “but I’m a quick learner.”

It’s the same way he entered the independent film and TV production industry, immersing himself in study and setting a goal to write three scripts within one year across different genres. “I’m self-taught with everything,” Johnson said. “Nobody taught me anything.”

He’s already filmed the pilot episode for The Probe, the police procedural for which he recently finalized a streaming deal (details are currently under wraps, he said). He’s looking to develop a similar project on the 1985 MOVE bombing.

The passion for storytelling also manifested in a trilogy of self-published novels, beginning with 2016’s Caught in the Life. Based around 62nd and Market, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale, telling the story of “a guy’s rise to power, who gets caught in a love triangle and the ills of the game.” 

The series, Johnson explained, is meant to be “a learning piece for the youth.” Prior to writing it, Johnson had been incarcerated for 18.5 years. “Wrongfully convicted,” he said, “and still fighting it.”

Behind the counter at Jim’s West at 62nd and Noble streets. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

For Johnson, the cheesesteaks coming out of 62nd and Noble have always been different from other spots: “They were always made with love.” 

It’s how the purchase of Jim’s West falls into Johnson’s long-held plan to revitalize a shuttered corner and bring positive change to his community. He’s thinking about hosting filmmaking classes for neighborhood kids. 

Two hours after opening, the lines outside the door had only grown longer. The demand, he admits, is “overwhelming.” But it’s also a good opportunity, he said, to take suggestions directly from the community on how to best serve them.

For now, though, the focus remains on “making great steaks and hoagies,” Johnson said. “And seeing where the business takes us.”

431 N 62nd St. | 12 to 10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday-Sunday | For more information, visit Jim’s West on Instagram.

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.