Boy, this was a tough nut to crack. Especially because of the various names used for basically the same sandwich. To nail down who was first to make, what we now consider, the Italian sandwich was easy. What was difficult was finding the origin of, and the components of, each sandwich. Let me explain, with my conclusion.
Submarine Sandwiches(or Subs for short) that.we here in New England, with Maine in particular, refer to, are cheese, meat and veggie-laden sandwiches. They are also called Italians. Although each should be given a stand-alone distinction, they are even alluded to as Italian Subs at times.
The True Italian
But why are they called Italians? No, they aren't Italian in origin or components, but because they were first prepared by an Italian immigrant named Giovanni Amato. That's right! The same man as the current restaurant chain is named after. The Amato family decided to name these popular sandwiches after their home country and self proclamation, a sort of reverence and dedication, if you will.
Giovanni owned a small bakery/sandwich shop on India street in Portland, Maine in 1902. The brunt of his noontime clientele were the dock workers on the ocean front. Come lunch time, Giovanni was selling his bread by the slice, and then the meat and cheese separately and to order to these workers. After leaving Amato's shop to enjoy lunch, these same workers had to take the time to assemble their own sandwiches. It didn't take a genius to understand that if Giovanni were to make this sandwich ahead of time or even when his clientele needed them by throwing in some sliced green peppers, onions, olives and tomatoes, sans the pickles and lettuce-he could sell them at a higher profit and make his dock workers satisfied to the point they would come back time and again.
The construction of this early sandwich consisted of good, dry-cured ham(not salami as many food historians may allude to) and as mentioned, did NOT include lettuce and pickles. Both of these came many decades later during the early 70s, along with the cheaper boiled ham.
Many deli's and "Sub" shops continue to produce an almost exact copy of this original, including Bratt's Store in Stetson, Maine. All you have to do is walk in and say "I will have an Italian please". In a couple of minutes, you will have a 'sub' roll filled with ham, American cheese, pickles, green peppers, onions and olives.....NO LETTUCE.
Those kinds of stores are few and far between so kudo's to my great friends at Bratt's, they are well worthy of a plug here.
I must also add that I was somewhat underhanded when I called my local Amato's in Bangor, Maine. I wanted to see for myself if they, too, lived up to the same standard as Bratt's. When a worker answered the phone, I asked him outright, "If I were to order simply an Italian, what would you put in it?" Gladly, and luckily I might add, he rattled off everything a true italian should contain. Bravo to you folks as well and I am extremely happy that Amato's continues with their longtime tradition.
See paragraph below on Dominic Conti for the name of the sandwich that DOES consist of lettuce, but keep it out of my Italian!
There was a certain Dominic Conti(1874-1954)an immigrant of Italian heritage from Montella, Italty. who moved his family to New York at the turn of the 20th century. He uprooted his family once again to move to Paterson, New Jersey a number of years later and opened a grocery store/deli in 1910 on Mill Street. For about 8 years, he was selling his version of a meat and cheese sandwich without a name.
In 1918, he marveled at a sunken submarine(the Fenian Ram) as it was being displayed at the Paterson Museum and noted that the hull looked just like his sandwiches. He immediately started calling his sandwiches Submarines. The main sticking point, of which actually separates a submarine sandwich from an Italian, is the lettuce that Dominic added to it from the beginning.
Another story, as related by his granddaughter Angela Zuccaro, is that Dominic didn't see the submarine until 1927, and that is was called the Holland I.(I believe she was referring to the Holland class of submarines). She goes on to say that her grandfather saw the Holland I at Westside Park in Paterson, not the museum. I believe this to be a mix up because it was a certain John Holland who designed and created the Fenian Ram.
The Fenian Ram
Many say that Benedetto Capaldo was the originator of the Submarine sandwich. Benedetto, who was a restaurateur from New London, Connecticut during the WWII era, made his "Grinder"(as he first referred to them as) with salami, onions, cheese and tomato. Benedetto changed the name of these sandwiches when he noticed that his sandwiches were little replicas of the submarines being built in the local shipyard. I will state, rather unequivocally, that I don't believe this story for one main reason, although several exist. It is way too similar to Conti's story, which is at least a dozen years earlier, and even up to over 20 years older, whichever the references you believe.
We also have the Hoagie, which has been around since the 30s in and around the Philly region.
Wedges are a New York term for the same sandwich. It is said to be a shortened version of the word sandwich.
Bombers in upstate New York are, in essence, the same as the Italian.
Also from the New York area is the Hero. These are said to have been "invented" at the turn of the 20th century by Italian immigrants. The story goes on to relate a beginning that is eerily duplicate to Dominic Conti, so this author will pass. The anme, itself, howver, is usually assigned to Clementine Paddleford, a wrtier for the New York Herald Tribune. She is said to have remarked "You'd have to be a hero to finish one."
Grinders are rightfully NOT Italians! They refer to any hot sandwich that contains both meat and cheese. Why are they so called Grinder? That will be up to future food historians to figure out.
Many historians have cited the Oxford English Dictionary with relation to the beginnings of each of these names, but fail to take into account that a term or word does not make it into a standard dictionary until it has been in circulation for many years.
And lastly we have a combination of both names, as seen by an advertisement for Charley's Italian Submarine Sandwich Shop, on his grand opeining. According to the 4 December 1936 issue of the Journal-Every Evening (Wilmington, DE), pg. 37, col. 4, he advertises for people to come and buy one of his Italian Submarine Sandwiches.
So Portland, Maine can rightfully proclaim to be the birthplace of this sandwich, regardless of the spin offs and names. We can all thank Giovanni for the introduction of this purely American sandwich as well as the purely American......way of confusing things. Sa-a-a-a-lute!
Here is an interesting refgerence to the Submarine Sandwich:
"FIRST PRIZE and RECIPE
MRS. ADRIAN ECK
Box 385, Pandora, Ohio
Split a coney roll: hollow out: butter completely. Fill fore n 'aft and in the middle with three different fillings. Baked beans with onions, chopped egg and mayonnaise, diced ham with relish."
-- The Lima News. Lima, Ohio. 12 April 1943. Page 5.