A submarine sandwich, also known as a sub, baguette, hero sandwich, Italian Sandwich, hoagie, torpedo or grinder amongst many regional naming variations, is a sandwich that consists of a long roll of Italian or French bread, split lengthwise either into two pieces or opened in a “V” on one side, and filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables, seasonings, and sauces.
The sandwich has no standardised name, and many U.S. regions have their own names for it; one study found 13 different names for the sandwich in the United States. The usage of the several terms varies regionally but not in any pattern, as they have been used variously by the people and enterprises who make and sell them. The terms submarine and sub are widespread and not assignable to any certain region, though many of the localised terms are clustered in the northeast United States, where most Italian Americans live.
History and Etymology
The sandwich originated in several different Italian American communities in the Northeastern United States from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Portland, Maine claims to be the birthplace of the “Italian sandwich” and it is considered Maine’s signature sandwich. The popularity of this Italian-American cuisine has grown from its origins in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts to most parts of the United States, Canada, and with the advent of chain restaurants, is now available in many parts of the world. In Europe it would simply be known as a baguette, or a ciabatta, named after traditional breads long baked in France and Italy.
The use of the term submarine or sub is widespread. One theory is that it originated in a restaurant in Scollay Square in Boston, Massachusetts at the beginning of World War I. The sandwich was created to entice the large numbers of navy servicemen stationed at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The bread was a smaller, specially baked baguette intended to resemble the hull of the submarines it was named after.
Another theory suggests the submarine was brought to the US by Dominic Conti (1874–1954), an Italian immigrant who came to New York in the early 1900s. He is said to have named it after seeing the recovered 1901 submarine called Fenian Ram in the Paterson Museum of New Jersey in 1918. His granddaughter has stated the following: “My grandfather came to this country circa 1895 from Montella, Italy. Around 1910, he started his grocery store, called Dominic Conti’s Grocery Store, on Mill Street in Paterson, New Jersey where he was selling the traditional Italian sandwiches. His sandwiches were made from a recipe he brought with him from Italy which consisted of a long crust roll, filled with cold cuts, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, oil, vinegar, Italian herbs and spices, salt, and pepper. The sandwich started with a layer of cheese and ended with a layer of cheese (this was so the bread wouldn’t get soggy).
The term hoagie originated in the Philadelphia area. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported, in 1953, that Italians working at the World War I–era shipyard in Philadelphia, known as Hog Island where emergency shipping was produced for the war effort, introduced the sandwich, by putting various meats, cheeses, and lettuce between two slices of bread. This became known as the “Hog Island” sandwich; shortened to Hoggies, then the “hoagie”.
The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual offers a different explanation, that the sandwich was created by early-twentieth-century street vendors called “hokey-pokey men”, who sold antipasto salad, meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta H.M.S. Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced a long loaf called the pinafore. Entrepreneurial “hokey-pokey men” sliced the loaf in half, stuffed it with antipasto salad, and sold the world’s first “hoagie”.
Another explanation is that the word “hoagie” arose in the late 19th to early 20th century, among the Italian community in South Philadelphia, when “on the hoke” was a slang used to describe a destitute person. Deli owners would give away scraps of cheeses and meats in an Italian bread-roll known as a “hokie”, but the Italian immigrants pronounced it “hoagie”.
Other less likely explanations involve “Hogan” (a nickname for Irish workers at the Hog Island shipyard), a reference to the pork or “hog” meat used in hoagies, “honky sandwich” (using a racial slur for white people seen eating them) or “hooky sandwich” (derived from “hookie” for truant kids seen eating them). Shortly after World War II, there were numerous varieties of the term in use throughout Philadelphia. By the 1940s, the spellings “hoagie” and, to a lesser extent, “hoagy” had come to dominate lesser user variations like “hoogie” and “hoggie”. By 1955, restaurants throughout the area were using the term “hoagie”, with many selling hoagies and subs or hoagies and pizza. Listings in Pittsburgh show hoagies arriving in 1961 and becoming widespread in that city by 1966.
Former Philadelphia mayor (and later Pennsylvania governor) Ed Rendell declared the hoagie the “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia”. However, there are claims that the hoagie was actually a product of nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. DiCostanza’s in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania claims that the mother of DiConstanza’s owner originated the hoagie in 1925 in Chester. DiCostanza relates the story that a customer came into the family deli and through an exchange matching the customer’s requests and the deli’s offerings, the hoagie was created.
A local Philadelphia variation on the hoagie is the zep made in Norristown, Pennsylvania. It is a variation on the traditional hoagie, with no lettuce and only one meat. It is made on a round roll, with provolone cheese covering meat, chunks of raw onion, and slabs of tomato. It is dressed with oregano, salt, pepper, olive oil, and hot pepper relish.
The New York term hero is first attested in 1937. The name is sometimes credited to the New York Herald Tribune food writer Clementine Paddleford in the 1930s, but there is no good evidence for this. It is also sometimes claimed that it is related to the gyro, but this is unlikely: Heros are invariably associated with Italians, not Greeks, and gyro was unknown in the United States until the 1960s.
“Hero” (plural usually heros) remains the prevailing New York City term for most sandwiches on an oblong roll with a generally Italian flavour, in addition to the original described above. Pizzeria menus often include eggplant parmigiana, chicken parmigiana, and meatball heros, each served with tomato sauce.
- Barb Mills (ham and provolone cheese, baked)—North Central Pennsylvania, Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania in the 50’s and 60’s
- Blimpie (shaped like a blimp)— From the Hoboken, New Jersey–founded chain, Blimpie.
- Bomber (shaped like a bomber plane) — Upstate New York
- Cheesesteak, in Philadelphia a roll filled with steak and cheese.
- Continental Roll — Australia
- Cosmo (cosmopolitan) — North Central Pennsylvania near Williamsport: a hot hoagie or a grinder
- Filled Roll / Salad Roll — New Zealand
- Gatsby – Cape Town, South Africa
- Grinder (Italian-American slang for a dock worker) — New England. Called grinder because it took a lot of chewing to eat the hard crust of the bread used. In Pennsylvania and Delaware, the term grinder refers to a sandwich that has been heated. In eastern Massachusetts a grinder is a toasted sub, for example the sub is toasted in a pizza oven.
- Hoagie — Southern New Jersey, Delaware and South-East and Central Pennsylvania — usually denotes lettuce, tomato and onions included.
- Italian Sandwich— Maine and other parts of New England.
- Poor boy— St. Louis
- Po’ Boy— Louisiana
- Rocket (shaped like a rocket)—various areas.
- Sous-marin— a variety popular in Montreal (also a literal translation of “submarine” into French)
- Spuckie (Italian-American slang for a long roll, from spucadella, the name of one-such)— Boston, Massachusetts (used particularly in Italian immigrant neighbourhoods)
- Sub — New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario
- Steak Bomb – New England – Make the ultimate steak sandwich with tender and juicy steak and sauteed onion and capsicum served on a toasted bread roll with garlic-Parmesan mayonnaise, provolone cheese and Italian seasoning.
- Torpedo (shaped like a torpedo) — New York, New Jersey, other areas.
- Tunnel— Various New England areas.
- Wedge (served between two wedges of bread)—Prevalent in Yonkers, New York and other parts of Westchester County, New York, The Bronx, Putnam County, New York and other portions of Upstate New York, as well as lower Fairfield County, Connecticut.
- Zeppelin or Zep— Various New England areas.
Ingredients and preparation
All varieties of this sandwich use an oblong bread roll as opposed to sliced bread. The traditional sandwich usually includes a variety of Italian luncheon meats such as dry Genoa salami, mortadella, thin sliced pepperoni, capocollo or prosciutto, and provolone cheese served with lettuce, tomato and onions seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano and olive oil. American bologna is sometimes used in place of mortadella and ham is often substituted for capicola, with prosciutto frequently omitted.
Many locations that provide catering services also offer very large 3-foot and 6-foot “Giant” sandwiches. Crusty Italian breads are preferred for the hearty sandwiches.
Vegetarian and vegan versions stuffed with soy-based ersatz meats are also popular.
- Grinders are sometimes made with toasted focaccia bread and melted mozzarella cheese.
- Both hot and cold sandwiches have been called “grinders”, though the term usually refers to a baked or toasted sandwich with sauce.
- Tomatoes were not a historical ingredient of the hero, but are often included in today’s heroes. Baltimore has usually preferred the term Hero, to nearby Philadelphia’s Hoagie and Washington DC’s Gyro. Italian communities existed in these cities.
- Philadelphia-style hoagies should have bread that is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.
- Quite often, much of the roll’s inside will be removed to allow for the ingredients to fit.
- Hoagies often have more than one deli meat.
- Mustard and vinegar are not traditionally used in hoagies. The traditional dressing is olive oil with herbs and seasonings.
- A standard zep contains only cooked salami and provolone as the meat and cheese, and includes no lettuce.
- Bacon— bacon and provolone cheese, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, raw onions, and sometimes sweet peppers
- Bánh mì — The sandwich is a product of French colonialism in Indochina, combining ingredients from the French (baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise) with native Vietnamese ingredients, such as coriander, hot peppers, and pickled carrots.
- Breakfast — generally consists of bacon, eggs and cheese
- Cheese — white American or provolone or both (mixed), sometimes also Swiss cheese
- Cheeseburger — hot, with cut hamburger patties and melted yellow American cheese. Additional common burger toppings, such as lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and mustard, are optional.
- Cheesesteak — thinly sliced pieces of steak and melted cheese (American, Provolone or, sometimes in the Philadelphia region, processed cheese such as Cheez Whiz) on a long roll
- Chicken — depending on the deli, this can be a cold cut of sliced chicken, a fried chicken finger or breast, chicken salad, or a variation on a local speciality as in the below “chicken cheesesteak”. In recent years, the expansion of buffalo sauce–flavoured chicken has drastically increased the number of chicken variants available, and many restaurants and delis offer a variety of chicken sandwiches.
- Chicken Cheesesteak—thinly sliced pieces of chicken and melted cheese on a long roll
- Corned Beef – served hot (with or without cabbage) or cold (as a sliced deli meat)
- Fish — some variety of whiting, fried.
- Gyro with the traditional pita being replaced with a sandwich roll.
- Ham and cheese — hot or cold with provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise or oil, hot peppers and ground pepper
- Italian beef, or simply “beef sandwich”—Italian beef, au jus, sweet peppers and often cheese and marinara. Popular mostly in the Chicago area. Also available as a “combo”, which is an Italian beef and an Italian sausage combined.
- Meatball— meatballs in marinara or chilli sauce, often with green peppers and onions and covered with American, Mozzarella or provolone cheese
- Po’ boy — Louisiana creole style usually containing fried seafood on baguette-like Louisiana French bread.
- Puritan or Pilgrim — turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Mostly found in sub shops around New England. Also known as a Christmas Sandwich in the United Kingdom. Also known as a “Bobbie” in some localities.
- Roast beef — as lunchmeat, with Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, raw onions, and mayonnaise or a vinegar and oil sauce
- Roast pork— hot or cold
- Sausage sandwich— German, Italian, Polish, or Andouille sausage with peppers, onions, sauerkraut or marinara. Popular at carnivals and fairs.
- Spiedie — marinated cubes of chicken, pork, lamb, veal, venison or beef, skewer-grilled and served on a long roll. A local dish in parts of Upstate New York.
- Tofu — Tofu, often lightly fried, with cilantro, cucumber, jalapeño, onion, and carrot.
- Tuna — either tuna salad or (especially in more ethnically Italian shops) Italian (canned) tuna in olive oil
- Turkey—hot or cold with provolone cheese
- Veal Parm or Chicken Parm — filled with deep fried veal or chicken cutlet, marinara sauce, mozzarella and occasionally onions and peppers. Almost always served hot.
- Veggie — vegetables such as peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli rabe, or even vegan versions with no meat or dairy products
Popularity and availability
From its origins with the Italian American labour force in the Northeastern United States, the sub began to show up on menus of local pizzerias. As time went on and popularity grew, small restaurants, called Hoagie shops and Sub shops, that specialized in the sandwich began to open.
After World War II Italian food grew in popularity in the US and started to become assimilated. This brought the use of other meats to the sandwich including turkey, roast beef, American and Swiss cheese, as well as spreads such as mayonnaise and mustard.
Pizzerias may have been among the first Italian-American eateries, but even at the turn of the century distinctions were clear-cut as to what constituted a true ristorante. To be merely a pizza-maker was to be at the bottom of the culinary and social scale; so many pizzeria owners began offering other dishes, including the hero sandwich (also, depending on the region of the United States, called a ‘wedge,’ a ‘hoagie,’ a ‘sub,’ or a ‘grinder’) made on a Italian loaf of bread with lots of salami, cheese, and peppers.—America Eats Out, John Mariani [Morrow:New York] 1991 (p. 66)
By the late 20th century, due to the rise of large franchisee chain restaurants and fast food, the sandwich became available worldwide. Many outlets offer non-traditional ingredient combinations.
In the United States, many chain restaurants have arisen that specialize in subs including Capriotti’s, Submarina, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Charley’s Grilled Subs, Blimpie, Jimmy John’s, Lenny’s Sub Shop, Port of Subs, Eegee’s, Firehouse Subs, Planet Sub, Potbelly, Tubby’s, Schlotzsky’s and D’Angelo Sandwich Shops. Major international chains include Quiznos, Mr. Sub and the largest restaurant chain in the world, Subway. The sandwich is also available from several supermarkets and convenience stores.