Philly’s Best Cheesesteak Is in New Jersey

by Peter Candia
philly's best cheesesteak

Cheesesteaks are one of the great sandwiches of the known universe. I think it’s their simple makeup of ribeye, cheese, onions and fresh bread that makes the sandwich so alluring to me. People will argue about which cheese to use and whether to chop or shave the beef, but one thing stays certain: With such humble makings, the room for failure is large— too little beef, and the sandwich is simply underwhelming. Not enough cheese? You’re left with pockets of dry, miserable steak. And please, for the love of God, leave the sweet peppers out of the equation. 

john's roast pork

Cheesesteak | John’s Roast Pork

Unless you live under a rock, Philadelphia is known as the place to sample the World’s best cheesesteaks, and for good reason. Angelo’s Pizzeria, John’s Roast Pork, Dallessandro’s—the list goes on. But what if I told you that the city’s best cheesesteak wasn’t actually in Philadelphia,  or even Pennsylvania? Instead, the best cheesesteak lives on the east side of The Delaware River, 20 miles into The Garden State.

That’s right, Philly’s best cheesesteak is in New Jersey.

This wouldn’t be the first time someone made such a claim. The late Anthony Bourdain claimed Donkey’s Place in Camden, NJ, was Philly’s best cheesesteak in the New Jersey episode of “Parts Unknown.” Donkey’s place is famous for its rather unorthodox version of the Philly classic—which is served on a poppy seed kaiser roll rather than hoagie bread. It’s definitely earned its spot among the greatest, but for me, there are better. 

lillo's tomato pies

Lillo’s Tomato Pies | Hainesport, NJ

I had heard rumors that a New Jersey spot rivaled Philly’s best, so I knew I had to try it. And, my God, the rumors were true. To find the best cheesesteak, you have to head to a quaint pizzeria in South Jersey. Philly’s best cheesesteak can be found at Lillo’s Tomato Pies in Hainesport, NJ. 

Lilllo’s Tomato Pies opened in late 2021 with one mission: To serve Hainesport the foods popularized in Trenton during the 20th century. Trenton Tomato Pies, cheesesteaks and more are just some of what Lillo’s is bringing to the literal table. Their namesake—the tomato pie—is understandably outrageous, comfortably earning a spot at the table with Trenton’s best tomato pies. They even offer a true Trentonian classic: The mustard pie, which lands you a tomato pie with a thin smear of spicy brown mustard on the dough. Weird? Sure. Delicious? Absolutely. 

mustard pie

Mustard Pie with Sausage | Lillo’s Tomato Pies

As you can probably guess, I don’t go to Lillo’s for pizza. I go to Lillo’s for cheesesteaks, and if it were up to me, it’d be the only one I eat for the rest of my life. Lillo’s cheesesteak is what I consider to be the platonic ideal of the sandwich. 16 ounces (yes, a pound) of shaved ribeye, Cooper Sharp White American cheese, onions and a fresh seeded roll from Liscio’s Bakery, which provides bread for a plethora of Philly’s best spots. 

Now, it’s true that just because the ingredients are premium, that doesn’t mean it always translates to a superb final product. So, what makes a great cheesesteak?

philly's best cheesesteak

Cheesesteak | Lillo’s Tomato Pies

The Beef

It starts with the beef. Ribeye is king and in my opinion, shaved ribeye is far superior to chopped or sliced. But even the best ribeye will taste off if not seasoned properly. This isn’t to say that the seasoning needs to be complex, a simple dusting of salt and pepper will suffice, but it is to say that it’s an absolute necessity. Too often, I have a cheesesteak that is improperly seasoned, rendering the entire sandwich flavorless and boring. 

The Cheese

Next is the cheese. People will argue about whether wiz, American, or sometimes Provolone should be used. If you ask me? It’s white American cheese all day. Cooper Sharp specifically has come to be the benchmark cheese for many hoagie shops. The product is a blend of aged cheeses into one melty block. This gives you a well-flavored cheese that is paramount for melting. 

philly's best cheesesteak

Cheesesteak | Lillo’s Tomato Pies

The Toppings

Next, the toppings. I usually don’t want anything more than onions on my steak sandwich and I think most Philly natives would agree. Hot peppers are fine sometimes, maybe (just maybe) even mushrooms here and there, but if you give me a cheesesteak with sweet peppers on it, it’s getting sent back. No exceptions.

The Bread

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, the bread. Bread is the vessel that delivers the sandwich to you. Without good bread, the best steak and cheese in the world would be wasted. A good cheesesteak roll should be crusty on the outside and soft on the inside with a slight chew to it. The bread’s flavor should be well-developed but not overpowering, like sourdough or something similar. Sesame seeds aren’t a necessity, though I thoroughly enjoy them for my hoagies. A product like the bread from Liscio’s Bakery is utterly perfect to deliver all of these qualities. 

Distribution

Another wildly important factor in a good cheesesteak is the distribution of ingredients. A pet peeve of mine is when you get a cheesesteak that simply has cheese melted on top. This is a sin. A great cheesesteak requires an even mixing of the parts. That means the cheese is melted and mixed with each crevice of the beef and onions. The bread encases the entirety. Every single bite should be consistent with the last and the next. There should never be a bite lacking ingredients—each one should have bread, meat, cheese and onions. Not to be dramatic, but this is utterly crucial when it comes to steaks. 

philly's best cheesesteak

Cheesesteak | Lillo’s Tomato Pies

This is the mental checklist I run through when trying a new cheesesteak. If a spot meets two out of the four, I’ll probably return. If a spot meets all four, I consider it the best of the best. Before now, John’s Roast Pork in South Philly was my gold standard for cheesesteaks. Every single one I had, I compared to John’s. Until I tried Lillo’s. 

Lillo’s Tomato Pies delivers what I consider to be the greatest cheesesteak in the world. I would be remiss to sit here and act like I’ve had them all, but Lillo’s steak hoagie is indeed better than any I’ve had in my life—it is Philly’s best cheesesteak.

It is loaded with beef, well-seasoned and served on incredible bread. The Cooper Sharp offers a flavor that many cheesesteaks lack. Something unique to Lillo’s is a garlic spread that adds an additional layer to the sandwich. It’s subtle, but defined. A peek into the Lillo’s dining room and you’ll see a cheesesteak on nearly every table. That’s because it is objectively great. It’s impossible to deny the profoundness of this sandwich. 

lillo's tomato pies

Lillo’s Tomato Pies | Hainesport, NJ

Cheesesteaks are, without a doubt, my favorite sandwich in the world. Their simple yet hard-to-master makeup makes for what I consider to be a nearly perfect food. When it comes to cheesesteaks, there are many great ones around—specifically in New Jersey and Philadelphia. However, in my opinion, not one tops that of Lillo’s Tomato Pies in Hainesport, NJ. Try it for yourself and you’ll agree that Philly’s best cheesesteak is in New Jersey. 

Photos by @pete.candia

About the Author/s

Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for food journalism midway through his schooling and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. Peter never stops learning and he is always in the weeds.

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26 comments

Sandy March 10, 2023 - 11:04 pm

If I want pizza I go to a pizza place. If I want NJ’s best cheesesteak the absolute best is Meatheadz in Lawrence. You can’t say the others are best without having tried the best. And Meatheadz is by far the best.

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Sandie Henderson March 11, 2023 - 9:54 am

Thanks for the write up about the Cheesestesk and yes Jersey had the best! I’m from a small town in South Jersey called Pennsvilke (Exit 1) Jersey turnpike. You really need to go to a little shop there on Hook Rd call The Italian Kitchen and try one of their Cheesesteaks or Italian Subs. Most people that have been there would argue that they are the worlds best and I agree! Ask for Big Gino and he will make sure that you enjoy your stop. You won’t be disappointed! 😋

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Golfer Bob March 12, 2023 - 11:38 pm

I also agree.Not far from the Del.Mamorial Bridge at the end of 295

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Mike W March 11, 2023 - 12:17 pm

The best Philly Cheesesteak is actually in New Castle DE- Ioannoni’s Specialty Sandwiches!
The business owner is a total douche tho luckily I still plug his business for him! But it’s that good!

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Mike March 11, 2023 - 2:40 pm

I’ve had Meatheadz, Pat’s, Geno’s, John’s, Donkeys etc. their okay but the best cheese steak is at Hogback Deli in Bordentown. I’ll have to try Lillo’s to see if it’s competition. My brother has been telling me about a place down by Berlin that’s life changing when it comes to cheese steaks another place to try.

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Derrick Landers March 11, 2023 - 3:00 pm

Please stop! The best cheese steaks and Hoagies are in Philly – period. And no, most Philly natives won’t agree that onions are best toppings – you put on it whatever you want.

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David Dietsch March 11, 2023 - 6:23 pm

You definitely have to try Meatheadz! They hit all the notes described in your article. That being said, I’m looking forward to trying Lillos. They’re much closer to home and sound like a possible new favorite!

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Perry Argentina March 11, 2023 - 9:38 pm

Me and a bunch of my buddies had the cheesesteaks at lilos, they all thought it was the best ever I thought it was very good my problem is too much meat I’m sure I’m in the minority there but. My favorite Cheesesteak is in Collingswood at a place called Bricco

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Dee March 12, 2023 - 12:06 am

It can’t be called a Philly Cheesesteak if it’s not in Philly!

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Jim March 14, 2023 - 1:50 am

Those places are in the suburbs of Philly..

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Justin March 12, 2023 - 12:36 am

Anyone who claims John’s is the best he’s had has my attention. I drove beck from the awful town of Princeton today and wish I had seen this first. It actually looks like John’s.

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Robert March 12, 2023 - 11:24 am

Malins deli in Newark Delaware make a great cheesesteaks, stop by and judge for yourself and you will see, i guarantee it .

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John Hooven March 12, 2023 - 12:21 pm

The best Philly cheesesteaks are actually in Atlantic City at the White House Subs on Arctic Ave.. The Atlantic City rolls have no equal.

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Kim Taylor March 12, 2023 - 12:31 pm

This is hilarious. It’s obviously written for the sole purpose of making New Jersey cheesesteak purveyors feel less inferior to their famous rivals in Philly. I’m from Delaware, and not once in my 67 years have I considered running over to Jersey to get a cheesesteak. The only rivalry on the planet for best cheesesteaks is between Pat’s and Geno’s. Everybody knows that, and New Jersey doesn’t even figure into the equation.

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Tracy Smith smith March 12, 2023 - 10:06 pm

Well said, 💯% thank you very much. 👏👏

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Bill March 12, 2023 - 10:13 pm

You want overblown hype? Go to Pat’s or Geno’s. You want a cheesesteak, go almost anywhere else. “Everyone” does not think that Pat’s and Geno’s are the best, only people who are visitors or didn’t grow up in Philly or South Jersey. Good article, and while the “best” cheesesteak may be in any of the three aforementioned states, it for sure isn’t where you have to specify “wit” or “witout” (yet another ridiculous part of the hype) and get an inferior product. FWIW, I’m exactly your age, and a lifelong live-in-South-Jersey, work in Philly guy.

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Vincent Bickler March 17, 2023 - 10:31 am

You are dead wrong! Ate at Lillo’s yesterday. Far better than the Philly joints mentioned. Have tried them all and Lillo’s is far better. It is a hidden treasure.

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Kenshiro March 12, 2023 - 1:30 pm

Sorry, but this is complete bullshit.

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Ira wechsler March 12, 2023 - 10:21 pm

-I take strong exception to anybody who recommends an American cheese of whatever uteratuon for a Philly cheesesteak sandwich.provolone is a step up but organic shredded mozarella is the best taste and far better quality than the non-cheese they call American .

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Donald Storey March 13, 2023 - 12:23 am

They forgot about Gaetanos in Willingboro N.J. a monster of a cheesesteak.

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Al Sacco March 13, 2023 - 8:57 am

People have been flocking to the south jersey shore for a long time. Not just for the beautiful beaches but also for the greatest Subs. The key is the bread. Atlantic city style bread is a “regional delicacy” and there is no better place to enjoy an Italian sub or Cheesesteak. The White House Subshop as well as Sackosubs are shops where you can enjoy these long time favorites.

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Tami March 13, 2023 - 8:46 pm

No self respecting cheesesteak should ever be on a seeded roll! Yuck! Pottstown and the outskirts of Reading PA have the best cheesesteaks. There you’ll find the meat chopped, with onions, white American Cheese, a little marinara sauce mixed in on a delicious seedless hoagie roll.

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shop 701 March 14, 2023 - 12:49 pm

Been to a lot of different places for cheese steaks and so far…. it’s Lillo’s, never better ANY where else!
It’s a CHEESE STEAK nothing to do with filly.
Besides it’s an argument based on opinions, as it should be.
We like what we like! Go where you like.
But try Lillo’s your life will never be the same!

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Isaac Howard March 16, 2023 - 7:06 am

Sapore Ravioli in Middlesex NJ. Hands down the best in up here. They do a Chicken Parm that is not on the Menu. Rediculous.

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Steve prela March 16, 2023 - 11:29 am

Rocco’s pizzeria has very good cheese steak

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Barry March 19, 2023 - 6:04 pm

AC’s Whitehouse cheese steaks are horrible. And, I’m originally from AC.

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