In March of 2011, I sank my teeth into the best Philly sandwich ever to pass my lips other than those enjoyed in the City of Brotherly Love. That steak sub was made to order by Bill Fromholzer, aka "Billy from Philly," who opened his Twinsburg restaurant Original Steaks & Hoagies
just a few months prior.
"Our goal all along was to get people addicted to these sandwiches," Fromholzer told me at the time.
Mission accomplished, I replied.
Father and son Fromholzer relocated from Philadelphia, where they operated multiple outlets of LaSpada’s Original Steaks & Hoagies, which was founded by John LaSpada in 1959. While notable steak shops like Geno's and Pat's gobble up all the press and tourist business, neighborhood haunts like LaSpada’s are busy keeping the natives well fed.
Real-deal cheesesteaks like those from Original are made from shaved ribeye that gets chip-chopped on a hot griddle along with onions. Cheese, Whiz or provolone, is added before the whole blessed affair is transferred into a roll from Philly-based Amoroso Bakery.
For seven years, Greater Clevelanders had to make a pilgrimage to Twinsburg to secure the best cheesesteak in the Land. Then, seemingly overnight, Original Steaks & Hoagies shops began sprouting up in places like Fairlawn, Canton, Lorain, Medina and Eastlake. That growth can attributed to Jeff Wiseman, who purchased the company in 2017.
“It was just a matter of, we fell in love with the food and we saw the potential to become something huge in the Cleveland market,” explains Wiseman, adding that he had pestered Fromholzer for five years to let him get involved before finally relenting.
In just two and a half years, Wiseman took the business from a modest $300,000 a year sandwich shop to a $7 million regional chain with six brick-and-mortar stores and three food trucks. Despite the aggressive expansion, Wiseman has managed to maintain product consistency while expanding menu offerings and increasing his brand’s visibility.
“A true original Philly starts with two main things,” he says. “Obviously the meat; you have to have the hand-shaved ribeye. And the bun; you have to use Amoroso rolls. Nobody around carries the rolls, but we are adamant about using the Amoroso roll because that gives you the authentic sandwich.”
If you've eaten a Philly sandwich in Cleveland, chances are good it adheres to a familiar formula of griddled meat (often sliced too thickly) topped with onions and peppers (also large-sliced), capped with cheese and broiled. The best cheesesteaks are surprisingly light, airy and easy-eating, the result of thin-shaved beef that is cooked together with vegetables like onions, sweet peppers and hot peppers, all of which is chopped to bits.
“It’s all so finely chopped together,” he notes. “It’s supposed to melt in your mouth.”
The menu at Original has grown from just a handful of cheesesteaks and hoagies to more than two dozen sandwiches starring steak, chicken and deli meats. There is even a vegetarian version of the classic made with cauliflower. In modern fast-casual fashion, those items can now be ordered on a roll, in a wrap or as part of a bowl. Fresh-cut fries are now joined by housemade tater tots stuffed with Cheez Whiz.
The dining experience has matured as well. Compared to the original 1,100-square-foot Twinsburg shop, the newer locations are bigger, more comfortable and more efficiently laid out. Draft and bottled beer, both available, happen to go great with a piping-hot Philly cheesesteak.
But despite the ambitious growth, Wiseman still hadn’t managed to penetrate Cleveland’s city center. His beefy food trucks have allowed him to do just that, at least on a temporary basis, at events like Walnut Wednesday and locations like the new Lakewood Truck Park. Those trucks have taken a hit, he admits, because of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
“The stores did great,” he says. “The stores are still doing great because take-out is huge. The coronavirus has probably affected the trucks more than anything because we lost every event, from Akron Pride to the Columbus Food Truck Festival to Rockin’ on the River and Rock the Park… anything and everything, we were there.”
Next up for the company is a brick-and-mortar invasion of Downtown Cleveland, he says, adding that talks are in the works with likely franchisees to open multiple shops in a brief amount of time.
“Our slogan is ‘From Philly to the Land,’” Wiseman says. “This is a real Philly product, and we are bringing it to the Land. You look at Melt. They brought back the grilled cheese. They took a concept that had been lost and forgotten but was a good product and look at them now.”