In much of America, the Sloppy Joe is a mess of ground beef in spicy tomato sauce on a bun. In North Jersey, no deli owner worth the pencil behind his ear would call such an ignoble creation a Sloppy Joe. That sacrosanct name is reserved for a double-decker of meat, cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing on thin-sliced rye. No dispute. But ask where the Sloppy Joe originated, and you are inviting a deli duel—frilled toothpicks at twenty paces!
The gospel according to South Orange’s Town Hall Deli: In the 1930s, Maplewood mayor Thomas Sweeney returned from a trip to Cuba raving about the Sloppy Special, a sandwich he had eaten at Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Eatery in Havana. The mayor asked Fred Joost and Hans Berdorf (who worked for the original owner of Town Hall Deli and eventually bought the place) to recreate the sandwich, which they gladly did. Today, Town Hall still serves the Original—ham, tongue, coleslaw, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing on rye—and many variations.
Competing versions of the story have circulated for years.
One credits a now-closed deli in Madison. Another claims the traveler was a Chatham resident. In 2001, a New York Times article said that Havana eatery merely laid out a spread of fixings and let the customer build his or her own sandwich. In that account, Sweeney loved his double-decker creation so much that he had the Town Hall guys cater his poker games with it.
Was it Sweeney, then, who created the Joe in a flash of inspiration as he beheld the Havana smorgasbord? Tony Wonski, who has owned the Town Hall Deli since 2003, has a 1939 menu from Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Under “Lunch” it lists a “Sloppy Special,” which Wonski says was the double-decker Sweeney flipped for.
Today, excellent Sloppy Joes can be found at several other North Jersey delis, including the Towne (New Providence), the Hickory Tree (Chatham), the Hill City (Summit), the Millburn (Millburn), and the Evergreen (Springfield). “Its origin is very clearly localized and popularized in this area,” says Wonski. Lou Napolitano, owner of Hickory Tree, agrees. “Once you leave the Morris and Essex county areas, nobody knows what it is,” he says, adding that even his Cape May summer neighbors think a Sloppy Joe is a heap of ground beef.
But that may be changing. Wonski ships his Joes all over the States (priority overnight, insulated, on ice, so they’re not soggy), meaning they might not be so iconically “Jersey” for long.