CLEVELAND : The humble Italian sub has evolved into America’s beloved lunchtime staple. It can pack a flavorful punch or be a dud, depending on which sandwich shop you choose to stumble into.
There is nothing quite like unwrapping the butcher paper around a crusty split roll stuffed with cured meats, cheese and crispy veggies, all bathed in oil and vinegar and a healthy shake of Italian herbs.
To find the freshest and best-tasting Italian sub sandwich, cleveland.com’s Best of team once again hit the road to visit nine popular chain sandwich shops across Northeast Ohio.
We ordered the subs as described on the menu, on Italian bread when we were offered a choice. If it came toasted, that’s how we got it. Check out our thoughts below to decide which sub shop you’ll head to when that capicola craving hits.
Mr. Hero: Original Italian
Menu description: “Salami, Italian luncheon meat, smoked ham, Swiss American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and Mr. Hero’s house dressing.”
Our thoughts: The bread was fresh and soft — almost too soft for this kind of sub sandwich. If you are looking for a chewy crusty roll, you may want to by-pass Mr. Hero. But, if you are OK with the texture of white bread, then read on. The meats and cheeses were fresh, and plentiful, as was the onion, though the latter was a bit over-powering. Veggies were sadly limp, detracting from the overall texture. This is a standard sandwich — nothing really made this stand out.
Subway: Spicy Italian
Menu description: “Our Spicy Italian sandwich is a combo of pepperoni and Genoa salami. Pile on cheese, crunchy veggies, and finish it with your favorite sauce. Or don’t. Your call.”
Our thoughts: Subway remains a sub-sandwich staple for one reason — you always know what you will get when you order the Italian at Subway. This was the smallest of the subs we tried, not nearly as stacked with ingredients as the others. The flavor was decent, and you get some of each ingredient in every bite because of how it’s layered. The bread didn’t taste very fresh, though, which made the sandwich more dry.
Jimmy John’s: Spicy East Coast Italian
Menu description: “A tasty Italian sandwich, made with a double serving of hand-sliced salami and capocollo, plus hand-sliced provolone cheese, and topped with easy mayo, hot Jimmy Peppers®, house-made oil & vinegar, oregano-basil and fresh-sliced lettuce, tomato and onion. The #7 is served on gutted, fresh-baked 8″ or Giant 16″ French bread, Thick-Sliced wheat bread or our lettuce-wrapped Unwich®. Plus, add any of our Freebies or Add-ons to customize your sandwich just how you like!””
Our thoughts: Take the basic Jimmy John’s Italian and add spicy cherry peppers. The added heat makes all the difference with this sandwich, which is stacked with plenty of meat and cheese, and a nice amount of fresh and crunchy veggies. Sadly, the peppers were all dumped in one clump in the sub we got, so while one of us enjoyed the spicy addition, only one of us enjoyed the added kick, while the other got only a taste. Take the time to examine your sub and, if needed, spread out the spicy chopped pepper relish.
Subway: Italian B.M.T.
Menu description: “The Italian B.M.T.® sandwich is filled with Genoa salami, spicy pepperoni, and Black Forest Ham. Big. Meaty. Tasty. Get it.”
Our thoughts: The Subway BMT was more stuffed with cold cuts than the other Subway entry. It also had plenty of ‘sort of’ fresh veggies. It might have been a tasty lunch but was drenched with vinegary dressing — so much so, that it drowned out many other flavors. The banana peppers saved the day with the little kick they provide.
Jimmy John’s: Italian Night Club
Menu description: “A tasty Italian sandwich, made with hand-sliced salami, capocollo and smoked ham, topped with mayo, fresh-sliced lettuce, onions, oil & vinegar and oregano-basil. The #9 is served on your choice of fresh-baked 8″ or Giant 16″ French bread, Thick-Sliced Wheat bread or our lettuce-wrapped Unwich®. Plus, add any of our Freebies or Add-Ons to customize your sandwich just how you like!”
Our thoughts: True to the “free smells” advertising slogan, the sub roll was fresh, chewy and tasty. Disappointingly, the bread was the best part of the sandwich. The cold cuts and veggies got lost in the oily dressing. This sub was plentiful on the cold cuts, but cheap on the veggies
Jersey Mike’s: The Original Italian
Menu description: “Nothing says Jersey Mike’s more than our Original Italian. A truly authentic Jersey-style Italian sub, it’s crafted with provolone, ham, prosciuttini, capicuolo, salami, and pepperoni. Order a giant Mike’s Way for one truly memorable experience.”
Our thoughts: This sub roll was everything you want — a chewy, crunchy Italian bread. This was the first shop that slices the cold cuts when you order so you know they are fresh, but sliced ohhhh so very thin, which is probably why the sandwich is so stuffed. Even though we ordered this sandwich “Mike’s Way” — with added herbs and oil and vinegar, the preparer was a bit stingy — we could have used more seasoning.
Pot Belly: Italian
Menu description: “Salami, old-world capicola, pepperoni, mortadella, provolone.”
Our thoughts: This sub is everything you want an Italian sub to be — as long as you enjoy the heat. The roll was toasted, crunchy and chewy, it’s stuffed with plenty of meats and cheese and plenty of veges. The bonus was the spicy pickles and the heat. And we do mean heat. it lasts awhile on your tongue after you have finished eating. If you are not a fan of spice, maybe skip this sandwich.
Firehouse Subs: Italian
Menu description: “Our Italian sub is loaded with Genoa salami, pepperoni, Virginia honey ham, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, deli mustard and Italian dressing and seasoning.”
Our thoughts: This sandwich is served “toasted,” but ours came out only slightly warmed. The cheese is ooey-gooey and there is plenty of meat to satisfy. There was also plenty of sharp Italian dressing and lettuce, though we thought they could have been a tad more generous with the tomato and onion.
Mr. Hero: Italiano
Menu description: “Pepperoni, salami, smoked ham, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, zesty mayo, and Mr. Hero’s house dressing.”
Our thoughts: While many of the subs we tried were piled high with thinly sliced meats, this shop did the opposite — the meats were thickly sliced and fresh. There was just enough white onion and oil and vinegar dressing to give this sandwich an added flavor profile without soaking the bread through, so it stood up nicely.
Penn Station: Classic Italian
Calories: 846 – 1,742
Menu description: Smoked ham, hard salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, Roma tomatoes, red onions, banana peppers, olive oil & red wine vinegar, salt & pepper, oregano, mayo.”
Our thoughts: Even though we choose to order this sub “cold,” the bread was still warm and crunchy, which added to the enjoyment of the sub. One of the smaller rolls we had on our journey, it was still filled with thickly sliced cold cuts and cheese. There was plentiful added toppings: tomatoes, onions, and peppers — maybe a few too many peppers. The thing we appreciated most is that the preparer made this sandwich with the cheese against the bread and the lettuce in the center of the meats so that the bread didn’t get soggy.
Dave’s Cosmic Subs: The Original Dave’s Cosmic Sub
Menu description: “Pepperoni, Genoa Salami, Prosciutto, Lettuce, Tomatoes, Sliced Banana Peppers, Onions, Fresh Garlic, Herbs, Provolone Cheese, smothered with Dave’s Cosmic Sauce.”
Our thoughts: Dave’s Cosmic Subs has become a staple to anyone from Northeast Ohio who has tried one, and The Original is no exception — the bread is crunchy on the outside and tender and chewy on the inside. The meats are thickly sliced and, as always, there is a mound of freshly shredded mozzarella on top. Veggies are fresh and crisp. The star of this show is Dave’s Cosmic Sauce, which provides the final “bite.”
DiBella: Italian Assorted
Menu description: “The Italian Assorted features Genoa salami and capicola. Does it get more traditionally Italian than that? It sure does if you make sure to add our Famous Italian Oil Dressing to this delicious sub!”
Our thoughts: DiBella’s apparently doesn’t make a small sandwich, so have a big appetite — or someone to share — when you order. This sub was huge, packed full of nicely spiced meats and crisp toppings. Our only knock is that we would have liked more of that creamy cheese. Don’t short-change us on the cheese. Aside from that, it was almost a perfect sandwich!