"It's worth the wait," says 35-year regular William Phillips, while on the typically long lunch line at steak purveyor Dalessandro's, this month celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The tiny former grocery store at Wendover and Henry in Roxborough is said to be an improvement on the Ridge/Manayunk location where the late William Dalessandro — the kind of guy who would leave a fancy Palumbo's restaurant wedding to grab a tripe sandwich at a stand in the Italian Market — first decided to perfect the cheesesteak.
So what's the secret to a 50-year-old business? William's niece, Karen Gaffney, cites hard work and her uncle's devotion to fresh, quality ingredients.
"I remember seeing him lay down on the floor to sleep, he was that tired and worked that many hours," says Gaffney, who worked at Dalessandro's as a teenager. "And he would not serve a day-old roll," to the consternation of his frugal mother, who would bag the leftovers for neighbors.
William's daughter, Fran Dalessandro Sack, shares Gaffney's pride in the shop's signature long hots, slow-roasted onions and house-sliced rib-eye, but did not feel up to running the business solo after her co-owner brother, Tom, died in 2007. So in 2008, she sold to someone who made some unpopular changes (including to the meat).
"We lost more than half our customers," recalls Carol Glodek, a waitress there for 32 years. But within a matter of months, that owner flipped the business to longtime customers Stefanos ("Steve") and Margie Kotridis and now, a smiling Glodek says, "It's back to the way it was, only better."
"They always had the most amazing sandwich," says Steve, who ran a food cart at 17th and Ludlow for almost 30 years. "And to buy a store with this kind of following and reputation, it was like a dream come true." To stem the late-2000s "downhill" slide Steve the customer had noticed, Steve the owner installed new countertops and floors, a flat-screen TV, outdoor umbrella-table seating, and added Sunday hours and new Cheez Whiz and microbrew beer options — changes that even former owner Sack calls "needed" and "cool."
"We were scared for a while," admits Suzi Dooley of Long Beach Island, as she and her husband, Peter, a regular since his late '60s Philadelphia University college days, down steaks. "But now it's just fine."
Dalessandro's, 600 Wendover St., 215-482-5407,dalessandros.com.