Growing up in northeast Philadelphia, Steve Iliescu has always known the value of a good cheesesteak and its importance in the cultural scene of this city. As a boy, Iliescu made trips to Center City to get the beloved sandwich at the likes of Pat’s and Geno’s, sparking what would become a lifelong passion.
A mechanic by trade, Iliescu had his own service station by the age of 23, which he ran until 30, when he decided it was time to try his hand at fulfilling a dream—being in the cheesesteak business.
“I decided that I really didn’t want to stay in the repair business,” Iliescu says. “I had done it since I was 15 and I had opened my own place. By 30, I wanted to make a change and if I didn’t do it then, then I wouldn’t be able to.”
So, in 1980 he opened the very first Steve’s Prince of Steaks at the corner of Bustleton and St. Vincent. And for the last three decades, Iliescu’s has been a favorite among the most popular steak joints on the outskirts of the city.
“There’s quite a few people that have grown up in Philly and gone to Pat’s or Geno’s or Jim’s and would say, ‘Gee, I’d like to do this,’ but very few get the chance to do it,” he says. “I’ve gotten to do it.”
With the success of the first restaurant, Iliescu was able to open locations in 1999, at Comly and Roosevelt and another in 2006 on Route 1 in Langhorne. Since then, Steve’s Prince of Steaks has been twice voted the Best of Philly (1992 and 2007) and even made it way to the Guinness Book of World Records as part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ World’s Largest Cheesesteak project, winning the title of Best of the Biggest in 1998, beating out his more famous competitors.
“After being in the neighborhood for 32 years and being successful, I believe my sandwich is the absolute best,” says Iliescu. “We’re busy through lunch and dinner and, of course, late night on the weekends—that’s when we’re the very busiest.”
So what draws the crowds to the “The Prince” time and time again, becoming “loyal subjects” (as Iliescu refers to his devoted customers) over the years? It’s the quality of the sandwiches produced at his locations.
Iliescu uses the best of every ingredient in compiling the perfect steak. Sliced ribeye, which he trims himself, grilled whole—none of the over-chopped, over-processed meat found at some eateries—combined with his secret roll formulas that a bakery in New Jersey makes especially for him, topped off by a unique American cheese sauce, all adds up to a Philly classic. And, as one of the most sought-after attractions in the city for tourists and locals alike, he has to be the best in order to survive in this business.
“It’s my name up there on the marquee, and I make sure everyone that eats here has nothing to say but good things,” he says. “Every day I do everything I possibly can to make sure it’s the best of the best.”
But, even with his award-winning recipes, with big-time competitors more centrally located in the more densely populated and heavily visited parts of the city, it has always been a fight to maintain the same prestige as the better-known establishments.
“Without the Center City crowd you won’t be known like Pat’s or Geno’s or Jim’s, because they do more business in Center City,” he says. “Many people don’t know me because I’m not in the city.”
It will come as no surprise then that Iliescu has decided to make the move to Center City, hoping to open his newest restaurant (41 S. 16th Street) by the first week of March. With this fourth location, Iliescu is certainly stepping up the competition with the landmark cheesesteak eateries that have called the city home for decades.
“The truth of the matter is [competitors] are surviving on reputation because they’ve been around so long,” Iliescu says. “I’m coming to town to further my name and to prove who the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia is. The only way to do that is to put as many sandwiches in as many hands and mouths as I can.”
And, while some visitors may be intimidated by getting in line at the city’s other cheesesteak giants—not being sure how or what to order—The Prince has perfected customer service so guests feel relaxed and can enjoy their sandwich. There is no “ordering protocol,” and the staff and friendly and willing to help decipher the menu whenever necessary. “They were trained by the best to be the best so they are the best,” Iliescu says of his staff.
Regardless, Iliescu knows what it takes to be one of the most successful and best cheesesteak eateries in the city that they call home.
“Seventy-six percent of people that come to Philadelphia will eat a cheesesteak,” he says. “It is the biggest tourist attraction in Philadelphia. I do believe in my heart that I have the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia and, therefore, the best cheesesteak in the world because this is the town of cheesesteaks.”
Steve’s Prince of Steaks
7200 Bustleton Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19149
2711 Comly Road
Philadelphia, PA 19154
1617 E. Lincoln Highway
Langhorne, PA 19047