The intoxicating aroma grips you as soon as you open the door—a heady blend of caramelized onions, sizzling steak and sautéed mushrooms. In a well-choreographed performance, workers deftly mix the three and fold in the cheese. The phone rings, the register spits out receipts and the spatulas chop nonstop on the flat-top grill.
These sights and sounds occur every day in sub and steak shops throughout the Small Wonder. Although Philadelphia is the cheesesteak’s birthplace, Delaware has some of the mid-Atlantic’s best versions.
“I would put Delaware’s pizza-shop cheesesteaks against any other pizza-shop cheesesteaks,” says Jim Pappas, author of The Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure blog. He should know. The Concord High School grad and Delaware resident says he has consumed more than 1,000 cheesesteaks in Greater Philadelphia and beyond.
If you’re so inclined, you can embark on your own tour of cheesy, juicy, meaty goodness. Working north to south, here are a few establishments celebrated for their beef cheesesteaks.
Like Pappas, many Delawareans experienced their first cheesesteak at this iconic shop on Philadelphia Pike. “If someone says ‘cheesesteak,’ my memory clicks back to Claymont Steak before they renovated it. It’s American cheese and chopped—not flat—steak,” Pappas agrees. Today, there are locations in Newark and on Concord Pike in Brandywine Hundred, but many maintain that the flagship restaurant is the must-see.
The business was founded in 1966 by Bob Hionis and Sam Demtratos, Greek immigrants who’d experienced post–World War II hunger in their native country. Consequently, they were devoted to large portions.
In 2005, Bob’s niece Demi Kollias purchased the restaurant, and she’s committed to using fresh—never frozen—well-marbled rib-eye. The OG of Delaware cheesesteaks has its share of celebrity visits, including several from now President Joe Biden.
3526 Philadelphia Pike, Claymont | 798-0013
Chef Donnie Scalessa is known for meatballs—and rightly so. But the cheesesteak, made with hand-sliced rib-eye, is worth the trip. There is one size and it takes both hands to hold. Save room for Scalessa’s butter cake. “He’s a great host and brought me out a piece, and I was like, ‘Oh, God bless you,’” Pappas recalls.
1836 N. Lincoln Street, Wilmington | 656-1362
Chef Eric Huntley breathed new life into this much-loved sub shop when he purchased it in 2018, but Mike and Jane Gaudiello had created such a well-known brand that Huntley kept the name. The former Redfire chef has put his fine-dining skills to use. He makes sauces from scratch and carefully vets suppliers. “He’s making traditional deli sandwiches but with his chef flair,” Pappas says. “It’s an elevated sandwich.”
Each cheesesteak boasts a half-pound of freshly sliced beef, tucked in a roll delivered fresh each day. If the shop goes through all the rolls on busy days, it’s time to close— there are no substitutes. The takeaway: Order early.
29A Trolley Square Shopping Center, Wilmington | 428-1060
“He’s making traditional deli sandwiches but with his chef flair.”
—Jim Pappas, author of The Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure blog
Those in the know come for the cheesesteak on garlic bread or the Little Vinnie’s Supreme: beef steak, three different kinds of cheese, sweet peppers, mushrooms, fried onions and tomato sauce. Pappas asked the staff to combine the two. “It had flavor on top of flavor,” he says. “I’m a big Vinnie’s fan.”
1706 Faulkland Road, Wilmington | 633-6801
This hot spot across from William Penn High School opened in 2005 but already has a legacy. Perhaps that’s because owner Michael Ioannoni’s great-uncle and great-aunt Michael and Mary Ioannoni, along with son Angelo, operated an Italian deli and grocery for 50 years in New Castle.
Customers make the pilgrimage for such Italian sandwiches as roast pork with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe. Pappas salivated while watching the staff make slow-roasted beef sandwiches with au jus. Nevertheless, he got the cheesesteak. (For the best of both worlds, add sharp provolone and broccoli rabe to your steak.) Bring your appetite. The large is about 20 inches long.
624 Basin Road, New Castle | 322-5000
This family-owned eatery is “old school,” Pappas says. “It’s like stepping back in time with a whole wall of family pictures. You feel like you are sitting in a Malin’s kitchen.” As for the cheesesteaks, crusty rolls are packed with chopped meat.
821 S. College Avenue, Newark | 368-0431
Clint “Chef Bones” Harris is the creator of a cheesesteak overflowing with 2-plus-pounds of rib-eye. For many, it’s a work of art. Indeed, the chef signs and numbers each cheesesteak container. The barbecue restaurant offers this Philly favorite as a “non-menu” item, so call first to make sure it’s available.
2504 Red Lion Road, Bear | 617 East Loockerman Street, Dover | 832-7427
This shop promises to treat everyone like family—and they do. Originally called Graham’s Market, the business has been a Smyrna fixture for more than four generations. Pappas loves the quaint old structure with the uneven floors, the hefty cheesesteaks and the desserts, including rice pudding.
140 S. Main Street, Smyrna | 653-8837
Frank Vasilikos started this strip mall restaurant because he couldn’t find a good cheesesteak in Sussex County. His parents, Pete and Marika Vasilikos, owned a Wilmington steak shop, and he and brother Michael grew up working in it, so they knew steaks. The siblings partnered with Petro Cornescu to start Pete’s. Sadly, Frank died in 2013, but Pete’s has continued to plug the niche and make Frank proud.
19287 Miller Road, Rehoboth Beach | 226-3000
A little farther inland, Long Neck Deli brings a taste of “DELCO” (Delaware County, Pennsylvania) to Sussex. Along with cheesesteaks worthy of the Philly area, there are hoagies—not subs—fried pierogies, scrapple and pork roll.
32361 Long Neck Road, Millsboro | 945-7575