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August 31, 2015

South Philly cheesesteak joints prepare for papal visit

Pat's and Geno's are expecting crowds like those seen during 2008 Phillies parade

Papal Visit Food
Pat's King of Steaks John Kopp/PhillyVoice

World Meeting of Families Executive Director Donna Crilley Farrell, Pat's King of Steaks owner Frank Olivieri and Mayor Michael Nutter clap their hands at an event encouraging businesses to remain open during the papal visit in late September.

Some 1.5 million people are expected to flock into Philadelphia in late September to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis.

Inevitably, a sizeable portion of that crowd also will make the pilgrimage to South Philly to answer a decades-old question: Pat's or Geno's?

Both fabled cheesesteak joints are accustomed to watching long lines of people develop around their perimeters on Passyunk Avenue. But the businesses are busy preparing for an influx they haven't witnessed since the Phillies paraded down Broad Street seven years ago.

"I'll have plenty of Cheese Wiz," Pat's King of Steaks owner Frank Olivieri said with a smile.

To ensure the masses know Pat's King of Steaks will remain open for business — and to encourage restaurants across the city to do likewise — Olivieri welcomed Mayor Michael Nutter to his establishment Monday.

Nutter made his way around the city to distribute marketing materials to businesses committed to staying open during the papal visit, which will shutter major roadways, restrict Center City traffic and close the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Some Center City businesses are weighing the feasibility of remaining open, given the difficulties in getting supplies and employees into Center City. 

But Olivieri sees this as an opportunity for Philly to shine, to no longer be "the middle child" between Washington and New York. He's urging other businesses to stay open.

"We're a city of progress," Olivieri said. "We're a city in the making. We're on the road to greatness."

Olivieri proudly posted a placard depicting Pope Francis beneath the phrase "Welcome Pope Francis" to a window beside the register. Nutter distributed pins to customers as a small band — two saxophones, a banjo and a string bass — played "When The Saints Go Marching In."

Pat's has ordered several thousand more loaves of bread and extra meat to accompany some 3,000 cases of Cheese Wiz always on hand, Olivieri said. But he also encouraged pilgrims to step into the city's many neighborhoods and experience the myriad restaurants that make Philly a premier destination for foodies.

"I'm not the only game in town," Olivieri said. "Try everybody. There's so much here. We're a diverse food city."

Preparations also are ongoing across the intersection at Geno's Steaks, minus the Nutter pep rally.

Manager Jeffrey Beres said he's expecting "waves of people coming down Wharton Street to Federal Street for a whole week," an experience similar to the influx witnessed during the 2008 World Series parade. Geno's already has received a pre-order from an archdiocese in Michigan.

"It's going to be 24-hours, constant business," Beres said.

To meet the demand, Geno's will increase its staffing during the papal visit, Beres said. The many road closures will cause many employees to find a place to stay nearby.

"Either that," Beres said laughing," Or they'll be walking for a few miles."