Move over, Bitcoin. Philadelphia native Mike Casey's innovative choice of currency during college eventually propelled him into a successful restaurant venture, Liberty Cheesesteaks (5041 Freret St., 504-875-4447; www.libertycheesesteaks.com) — and locals are eating it up.
"I used to fly back to Tulane (University) with an ice chest full of steaks and I'd make cheesesteaks for friends and they would buy me beer," Casey says. "It was my currency of choice."
After college, Casey began a career in finance back home in Philadelphia but longed to return to the Big Easy. When his Tulane roommate, Joe Seremet, a Connecticut native and local investment banker, pitched the idea of starting a restaurant centered on cheesesteaks, Casey came to New Orleans to explore the possibility. During his visit, Hurricane Isaac passed over New Orleans, giving Casey and Seremet a full week with minimal distractions to map their vision.
"We basically were trapped in a room for a week and wrote 80 percent of the business (plan) on the back of an envelope," Casey says.
Liberty Cheesesteaks' partners insist on authenticity. Casey began by modeling his cheesesteaks on those from his favorite cheesesteak restaurant in Philadelphia, Dalessandro's Steaks & Hoagies.
"It was a 30-minute drive for me twice a week," Casey says of his regular treks for the famed sandwiches. "We wanted to recreate that as best we could."
At the same time, the partners put their own stamp on the cheesesteak. Liberty's cheesesteaks are served on a high-quality bun and sport a sprinkling of white American cheese rather than the traditional provolone.
Liberty's authenticity is rooted in simplicity. Casey says a traditional cheesesteak consists of steak, provolone, caramelized onions and maybe hot peppers. While customers have requested a whole host of other additions, Casey and Seremet stick to the basics.
"I said, 'I'm going to stay in my lane,'" Casey says. "I'm not going to compromise that."
The restaurant chooses prime loin cuts of meat. Liberty slow cooks the meat and adds onions and cheese. It also offers a lighter, healthier version of a cheesesteak made with chicken tenderloin instead of beef and several sub sandwiches including Italian and turkey subs. In a nod to its "dressed" po-boy cousins, Liberty offers customers the option to "hoagie" a sandwich with the addition of lettuce, tomato, olive oil and red wine vinegar.
Casey says Liberty Cheesesteaks' mission isn't to elevate the "everyman" sandwich from the Keystone State — just the opposite.
"We're trying to take it down a notch," he says. "The whole world has gone crazy when you have a truffle burger. There are too many conflicting flavors. This is what we do and what we do great. I tell my employees, 'I want to give people a 10-minute vacation to Philadelphia.' If we get that done, we win."