Jim’s West in West Philadelphia. | Ernest Owens.
Co-owner Cortez Johnson says he’s not changing the name despite those who have legally challenged it
Since its grand reopening in early September, Jim’s West in West Philadelphia has stayed in the news for its beloved cheesesteak, legal battle with previous owners, and new changes to its hospitality. After several weeks of making headliners, co-owner Cortez Johnson spoke with Eater Philly on how he’s been navigating the triumphs and challenges of running what’s now become the most controversial cheesesteak spot in Philly.
“The response of support from the community has been surreal being this location has decades of history,” Johnson says about purchasing the beloved cheesesteak spot earlier this year. “During the the process of rehabbing and getting prepared to open, many people would drive pass daily and inquire about if this location would ever be a cheesesteak place again. And the response would be yes, we’re working hard to try a provide a great service of such a staple. And once we finally opened, people lined up around the corner and that’s when we knew that history was unfolding right before our eyes. It’s humbling and amazing and we appreciate everyone from all walks of life who’ve been supporting us.”
In 1939, the original Jim’s Steaks in West Philly opened at 431 North 62nd Street — the same location of Jim’s West today. Over the decades, there were major transitions and expansions between the owners: William Proetto and his brother acquired the original location in 1966, opened another one on South Street, then another location in Northeast Philly (which later closed in 2017), and then opened their most recent spot in Delaware County in 2009 that’s still operating — two years before Proetto died.
Earlier this year, Johnson acquired the West Philly location from the sons of Proetto and has since gotten the proper permits from the Department of Licenses & Inspections last month.
“This opportunity was presented through my uncle who in turn was friends with the previous owner who decided to move on,” Johnson says on his recent co-ownership of Jim’s West. “We were up to task and off of pure motivation of trying to persevere this landmark with a new brand: Jim’s West.”
At Jim’s West, Johnson has now blended tradition with contemporary attention to his diners. A Delco filmmaker turned first-time restaurant owner, Johnson kept a few of the original cooks that were part of the Jim’s Steaks — individuals who have had their own clientele at the location for many years. And these cooks have had their own clientele for many years.
“I am sure that customers who have been used to having their steaks, hoagies or burgers made a certain way, were excited when they found out that the original cooks were coming back,” Johnson says on revitalizing Jim’s West and the long lines have now wrapped around the venue. “The location has been closed for six years and people have been missing the taste of great steaks from here for a long time.”
But such early buzz for Jim’s West was interrupted by the legal challenges that hit its owners. Following the grand opening of Jim’s West, Carl Proetto, the owner of the Jim’s Steaks in Springfield, Delaware County, filed for an emergency injunction against the location he sold Johnson. According to a report in Philadelphia magazine, Proetto requested the court to immediately block Jim’s West from incorporating Jim’s name in anything related to their business.
Last week, Johnson won his legal battle with Proetto when he was able to provide documentation in court that revealed a legal agreement between the Proetto brothers and Johnson’s company in November 2022 that included a clause stating couldn’t use the specific phrase “Jim’s Steaks.” Without hiring a lawyer, Johnson was impressively able to defend himself in court and easily made the case to the judge that he was only using Jim’s West — not Jim’s Steaks.
“It’s a relief when you only meant good through the entire process in trying to open up a business,” Johnson says on his recent court victory. “All parties agreed that we wouldn’t use the former title or logo. We’ve done wrong as we were encouraged by the other sellers to utilize the name Jim’s West.”
With the threat of an emergency injunction out of the way, Jim’s West has been able to continue serving hundreds of cheesesteaks to its hungry diners from morning until late night. In a move that has kept them in the news, Johnson and his co-owners have hired armed agents to guard the property in a move to “keep the customers and staff safe.” So far, there’s been no arrests or incidents at the West Philly location, but Johnson says the move is an added layer of protection.
This fall, there’s been an expansion of cheesesteak options in the city. Outside of the reopening of Jim’s West, there’s the new Nipotina (2238 S 21st Street) and the highly-anticipated reopening of Jim’s South Street in late October. When asked how does Jim’s West make the case to Philadelphians that “West is best” when it comes to the cheesesteak competition — Johnson’s statement was as blunt as his ambitions: “We won’t, we will let the customers make it for us.”