A hero sandwich “by any other name,” would taste as good, and it is certainly known by a lot of other names. It can be called a Po’Boy in New Orleans, a sub or submarine sandwich in Boston, or a hoagie. The name usually refers specifically to those large sandwiches on baguettes or wider french or Italian bread that have a distinct Italian flavor.
Diners may be getting any number of ingredients mixed in with a hero sandwich. A very basic one has two Italian meats, provolone cheese, and is usually topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and pickled pepperoncini. Condiments vary, but instead of mayonnaise or mustard, oil and vinegar are traditionally used to coat both sides of the bread. Heroes may be served cold, or heated with the bread toasted and the cheese melted.
When choosing Italian meats, a sandwich maker will have a lot of choices. Mortadella is common, but so are Italian deli ham, salami, prosciutto, and pepperoni. Some delis and sub restaurants pile on tons of different meats to make what they call an “Italian sub.” This can sometimes be confused with the meatball sandwich, which usually features a couple of large meatballs, covered in mozzarella and topped with marinara. Though this sandwich is also Italian inspired it is not a hero by most definitions.
Still, depending upon the deli that makes the sandwich, a great variety in ingredients can be used to make it. Vegetarian sandwiches could feature a variety of cheeses or several slices of eggplant Parmesan. Leftover chicken or veal Parmesan could be used, according to some chefs. Most often, though, the hero sandwich makes specific use of Italian deli meats.
The origin of the hero sandwich is much disputed. Some say they were originally invented in Italy, and then Italian immigrants brought them to New York. Such sandwiches could be found from the late 19th century onward in most of the Eastern US, however, spreading to the Western US, particularly California, with Italian immigrants. Likely, the possibility of combining any available Italian meats and cheeses and placing them on crusty bread occurred to a number of people. It’s hard to say who made the first sandwiches, but their popularity assures that no one will be making the last anytime soon.
There are now many chain submarine sandwich places that make their own versions of the sandwich. The main complaint from fans tends to derive from the quality of ingredients used and the relatively soft bread. It really does help to use a more crusty loaf for a hero, and to scoop out some of the inner part of the bread in order to accommodate more meats and cheeses. A really tall sandwich can be hard to bite into though, and some argue that softer bread is easier to bite through and squish down.
It's easy for individuals to make their own hero sandwiches. If whole loaves of bread are used, they can be great for serving at parties. A variety of Italian meats can provide inspiration, and sandwich makers should feel free to load on lots of toppings. Since it is traditional to serve the sandwich topped with vinaigrette, mayo and mustard can be left on the side for those inclined to want more condiments. Alternately, chefs can make meat and cheese heroes and let people have access to all the toppings they want: sliced tomatoes, onions, pickles, lettuce, pepperoncini, and condiments.