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So, What Is a Hero Sandwich?

Join us as on a journey through the history, variations, and significance of the beloved hero sandwich. Bonus: Learn how to make it at home.

When it comes to sandwiches, there are a lot of options out there. From classic peanut butter and jelly to gooey grilled cheese, there’s a sandwich for every taste and preference. But among all the sandwich options available, one stands out as the superhero of them all: the hero sandwich.

But what exactly is a hero sandwich?

At its core, a hero sandwich is a sandwich typically served on a long roll, often referred to as a “sub” or “hoagie” roll. The roll is split lengthwise and filled with a variety of meats, cheeses, and vegetables, along with condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and lettuce. It’s then eaten as is, or—better yet—toasted to perfection, giving it a warm and crispy exterior while keeping the inside nice and moist.

Who Invented the Hero Sandwich?

Did you know that the hero sandwich has alleged roots that stretch all the way to Portland? That right, my friends, Portland. And it’s all thanks to one man: Giovanni Amato.

Amato, an immigrant baker from Naples, Italy, set up shop on the fishing docks of Portland in 1902, selling his fresh-baked bread rolls from a humble food cart. And as the story goes, the dockworkers and fisherman began requesting that Amato slice the rolls in half and add a variety of delicious fillings such as sliced meats, cheeses, and vegetables, and just like that, the Italian sandwich was born.

The traditional Italian sandwich—based on Amato’s O.G. recipe—should be prepared with a freshly-baked roll, loaded with slices of ham, American cheese, juicy tomatoes, onions, green peppers, pickles, and Kalamata olives, all topped off with a drizzle of olive oil.

From its humble beginnings, Amato’s food cart grew into a chain of restaurants across America, and to this day, the Amato’s chain operates more than 40 locations. But, as the name suggests, this sandwich became a true hero in the streets of New York and earned the name “hero sandwich.”

Why Is It Called a Hero Sandwich?

How did it earn the moniker of “hero?”

Like all great stories, the origins of the name can be hard to pinpoint, but here’s what we do know. In 1936, American food author Clementine Paddleford wrote a food column for the New York Herald Tribune, in which she described the Italian sandwich as being so big and delicious that “you had to be a hero to eat it.”

Paddleford—one of America’s first true foodies—had a strong following on the Tribune and her column undoubtedly had a big influence on the food culture of the time. After she coined the name “hero sandwich,” it most likely began to spread, and before long, New Yorkers were simply calling it “hero.”

Unfortunately, the New York Herald Tribune went out of print in 1966, and there are no searchable online archives of Paddleford’s column. However, according to Bon Appétit, her column can be retrieved offline from Rutgers University’s microfilm archive.

What Makes Hero Sandwiches So Good?

One of the things that makes the hero sandwich so appealing is the fact that you can make it yours without breaking any dogma. There are countless variations of the hero sandwich, each with its own unique flavor profile and ingredients.

For example, you have the classic Italian hero, filled with cold cuts, like salami, ham, and pepperoni, along with cheese, lettuce, and various Italian seasonings. Then there’s the Philly cheesesteak, which is made with thinly sliced steak, grilled onions, and melted cheese. And let’s not forget the classic meatball hero, made with homemade meatballs and hearty marinara.

But what truly sets the hero sandwich apart is how it’s constructed.

A good hero sandwich is built with a careful balance of ingredients—each component plays a specific role in the overall flavor so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The meats provide a savory, salty base. The cheese adds a creamy, rich element. The vegetables bring a refreshing crunch and a burst of flavor, while the condiments tie everything together with a tangy kick.

All of these different elements work together to create a symphony of flavor in every bite that take your tastebuds to the opera and get your heart to sing along with the main protagonist, crying with joy.

Another thing that makes the hero sandwich so special is its ability to transport you to different places and times. A bite into a classic Italian hero can transport you to the bustling streets of Little Italy. The hoagie takes you to Philly. Each variant of the sub sandwich has its own unique story and cultural significance, making it more than just a sandwich; a true culinary experience.

And then there’s the hero sandwich’s ability to bring people together. Whether we’re talking about a group of friends getting together for a game day or a family gathering up for a special occasion, a hero sandwich is the perfect addition to any event. It’s a sandwich that can be shared and enjoyed by all.

How to Make a Hero Sandwich

When it comes to the hero sandwich, there’s one thing that’s for sure—it’s as delicious as it’s open to interpretation. Unlike Neapolitan pizza, which has strict guidelines for ingredients and preparation, the hero sandwich doesn’t have a set recipe, so you can get as creative and go as crazy as you want to.

Even so, there are a few key components that should be present in every hero sandwich: Firstly, it should include an Italian meat, such as salami, mortadella, pepperoni, capicola, and/or prosciutto. Secondly, it should include cheese slices, such as mozzarella, provolone, romano, or American cheese. And lastly, it should include a variety of vegetables, including but not limited to tomato, onion, peppers, pickles, olives, and lettuce.

The hero sandwich is typically built on a long bread roll. If you want to stick to tradition, that bread roll should be a freshly-baked Italian bread roll with a long and pointed shape, also known as “spuccadella.” Spuccadella originates from panini recipes that immigrant Italians brought from their home country to America.

When it comes to condiments, a hero sandwich can have pretty much any condiment you desire, but the most traditional one is extra-virgin olive oil, brushed on each side of the sliced roll.

Know your author

Written by

Dim is a food writer, cookbook author, and the editor of Home Cook World. His first book, Cooking Methods & Techniques, was published in 2022. He is a certified food handler with Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates in Food Hygiene and Safety for Catering, and a trained cook with a Level 3 Professional Chef Diploma.