Between Two Slices: Which Chain Makes the Best Italian Sub?

Our roving correspondent ranks eight sandwich chains, several of which have deep roots in the Garden State.

Illustration by Corinne Dodenhoff

Let’s get something straight. Here in New Jersey, no one should ever have to rely on any kind of deli sandwich chain. We are blessed to have a seemingly unlimited number of old world delis with fresh, homemade ingredients. But sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. So if you’re ever in dire straits, need a quick sub fix, and have to resort to a chain, here’s my ranking of the best ones.

I’ve selected eight of the largest sub chains in New Jersey: Subway, Blimpie, Jersey Mike’s, Jimmy John’s, Wawa, QuickChek, Firehouse Subs and Primo Hoagies. As much as I miss Quiznos, the only location left in NJ is temporarily closed. I also ruled against including Potbelly because there’s only one Garden State location, and Panera and Charleys Philly Steaks just don’t really fit the profile. (There was a Which Wich in New Brunswick I wanted to try, but like many other eateries during the pandemic, it permanently closed).

Here’s how I went about the research:. I ordered the same sandwich—an Italian sub—from each chain. And since an Italian is probably one of the most popular and bestselling subs anyway, I thought it was a fair choice. Then, I scored each sandwich from 1-10 based on the quality of bread, fillings (meats and cheese), toppings (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, etc), and value. I’m aware each location differs a bit on quality, so this is all based on my own experience. Let’s dig in.

8. Subway

(from the 1600 Tonnelle Avenue, North Bergen location) 

I haven’t had Subway in years, and can’t believe I ever liked it. Sometime years ago, I visited my grandfather in North Carolina, and we went over to his friend’s house for dinner. His friend made a tomato pie. No, not a pizza, but a pie with tomatoes in it. Needless to say, it was not great. I ate two bites of it before shoving my plate forward. But my grandfather wolfed it down, groaning and exclaiming, “This is great! You’ll have to give me the recipe!” I was in complete shock. But the very moment we got into the car, my grandfather yelled, “That was atrocious! Come on Chris, let’s go to Subway!”

I’ll admit that I was a little scared to try Subway again after years way, especially after the whole controversy about Subway making its bread with azodicarbonamide, the “yoga mat chemical.” But I dug in and gave it a shot. I ordered the Italian B.M.T. (which stands for biggest, meatiest, tastiest), all of which were inaccurate. The Italian comes with Genoa salami, spicy pepperoni, Black Forest ham, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, cucumbers, oil and vinegar. Who puts green peppers and cucumbers on an Italian sub? And what kind of lunatic orders a sandwich from Subway: this guy.

What a sad sandwich this was. The bread was pretty stale. The salami and ham had a slight grayish color and didn’t taste like anything. The only thing in the sandwich I could really discern was the pepperoni and vinegar. The tomatoes were slightly gummy and the cucumbers added too much moisture to the sandwich. And to top it all off, the lettuce was a complete afterthought, with just a few strands tucked in the middle. I can’t say I was surprised by the quality, but I was surprised that for nearly $6 for the six-inch Italian, that people still order it.

Italian B.M.T.:
Bread: 1.2
Fillings: 1.8
Toppings: 0.7
Value: 1.1
Overall: 1.2

Subway’s Italian B.M.T., left, and Wawa’s Italian hoagie. Photos by Chris Gennone

7. Wawa

(from the 200 Harrison Avenue, Kearny location) 

Ah Wawa, a New Jersey and Pennsylvania institution. I’ve had my fair share of Wawa sandwiches, and they’ve all ranged from dull to decent. Every location differs in quality as well. But I’ve never been really impressed or depressed by a Wawa sandwich. I know everyone’s got their favorite order, but for the sake of this debate, I stuck with the Italian hoagie.

At the Kearny location, I ordered the Italian with ham, capicola, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, oil, vinegar and oregano on the regular white roll. When I got home and unwrapped my sandwich, it was smiling back at me. But let’s talk about it. Wawa’s standard white roll is on the tougher side, which I can appreciate, but also requires more chewing and tearing. I also appreciate the amount of meat on this sandwich, but it surprisingly didn’t have much flavor. And the provolone had a slight funk to it. The lettuce, onions and tomatoes didn’t add much to the conversation and felt like the sandwich needed more oil and vinegar to bring it to the next level. This sandwich was also very cold, meaning all of the ingredients had probably been sitting there for a while. But for $4, I guess you get what you pay for. I know some Wawa die-hards will be shocked but this sub just wasn’t very good.

Italian Hoagie:
Bread: 4.1
Fillings: 3.7
Toppings: 4.0
Value: 5.8
Overall: 4.4

6. Firehouse Subs

(from the 41 West Palisade Avenue, Englewood location) 

I’d never been to Firehouse Subs before, but heard good things. Located in downtown Englewood, I drove down memory lane, passing by some old lunch haunts and hangouts. I almost paid a visit to Balthazar Bakery for a coffee and scone, but I came here for one reason and one reason only: to buy a sub.

Firehouse Subs is known for its toasted subs a la Quiznos (rest in peace), but for the sake of fairness, I ordered the Italian sub cold. The Italian comes with Genoa salami, pepperoni, Virginia honey ham, provolone, Italian dressing, and seasonings served “Fully Loaded” with lettuce, red onions, tomatoes, mayo and mustard. Now that’s a lot. I was skeptical before even ordering the sandwich and I was not wrong to feel that way. The bread was soft and a little crusty, which was the perfect texture. While they seemed to skimp a bit on the meats and cheese, it tasted pretty fresh. A few bites in, it seemed like a solid sandwich. But as I continued, all I could taste were the condiments. And when I got to the end, the sandwich had become a wet mess, sopping with an Italian dressing and a mayo-mustard goop. I ordered the four-inch small sub for $4, which is a very fair price. But the regular medium-sized sub goes for $8, which pushes it over the edge a bit. Not a bad sandwich at all, but there’s just way too many condiments taking away the taste of what’s important.

Italian:
Bread: 6.1
Fillings: 5.8
Toppings: 3.6
Value: 6.4
Overall: 5.4

Firehouse’s Italian sub, left, and Blimpie’s Best. Photos by Chris Gennone

5. Blimpie

(from the 558-560 Newark Avenue, Jersey City location) 

The last memory I have of eating a Blimpie sandwich was in the Boy Scouts when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. It was Thanksgiving and all of the other “dens” set up their tables so eloquently with candles, table cloths and beautiful centerpieces. Everyone was giving thanks and eating their sliced turkey breast with all of the fixings. My friends and I sat at our cloth-less, bare brown fold-up table waiting for our den leader to show up with dinner. Moments later, our den leader stormed in carrying a couple of plastic bags from Blimpie as everyone stared at us. He slammed a couple bottles of Coke on the table and dumped out a handful of subs like they were candy and said, “Sorry I’m late. Let’s eat!” Though I look back at that memory fondly, I was unsure how Blimpie has held up over the years after several rebrandings and slowly fading into the background with the rise of other major sandwich chains. But I had a hunch that Blimpie was going to surpass my expectations.

I ordered the six-inch Blimpie Best with slow-cured ham, salami, capicola, prosciuttini, provolone, and made the Blimpie Way with lettuce, white onions, tomatoes, oil, vinegar and oregano. I have to admit I was skeptical as I unwrapped the sandwich. I smelled it, I poked the bread, I pulled off the top and inspected the tomatoes and lettuce for any discoloration. But I shook my head and just dove in and took a bite. I was pleasantly surprised. The bread was soft, just how I like it, but maybe a little too sponge-like. The onions were sliced incredibly thin, the lettuce was dark green and crisp, and the tomatoes had no residual refrigerator taste or smell. The meats were also sliced thin and tasted fresh, salty and savory. There wasn’t a ton of meat on the sandwich but I wasn’t offended. The amount of oil and vinegar was perfect and didn’t sog the sandwich down at all. But costing $7.50 for a six-inch sub, this was a very solid sandwich, but a little overpriced.

Fun-fact: The original Blimpie location opened in Hoboken in 1964 but closed in 2017. There are currently 24 locations in New Jersey, and just over 1,000 across the country.

Blimpie Best:
Bread: 6.0
Fillings: 5.9
Toppings: 6.0
Value: 5.4
Overall: 5.8

4. Jersey Mike’s

(from the 235 Prospect Avenue, West Orange location) 

It was Black Friday and even after eating twice my own body weight in turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, I still craved a sandwich the next day. Which brings us to the chain that bears the name of our great state, Jersey Mike’s. I brought some friends and we tailgated in the parking lot, hunched over the hood of our cars, strands of lettuce and chunks of onions spilling out onto the wrapping and on my car. It was a classic Jersey moment.

I ordered the Original Italian with provolone, ham, prosciuttini, cappacuolo, salami and pepperoni, and got it Mike’s Way with white onions, lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil and spices. I’ll be honest here. When I first started this sub chain showdown, I ultimately believed Jersey Mike’s would be the eventual winner. But after trying it, I wasn’t so sure anymore. This six-inch Italian sub cost about $9, making it the most expensive of the chains. I will say this, the meats tasted very fresh, but with five cured meats, it was incredibly salty and a little overboard. The lettuce, tomatoes and onions were fine, and a little on the thicker side. Nothing tasted offensive. The oil and vinegar added a slight tang and was used sparingly. I think what threw me off the most was the bread. It was a little hearty, a little crusty, but also a little off. It wasn’t stale per se, but it was as if it was just a day too old. This Jersey Mike’s was still a very solid sub in the grand scheme of things, but was ultimately disappointing.

Fun fact: The original Jersey Mike’s, then known as Mike’s Submarines, opened in Point Pleasant in 1956. Currently, there are nearly 2,000 locations worldwide.

The Original Italian:
Bread: 5.4
Fillings: 6.9
Toppings: 7.1
Value: 4.7
Overall: 6.0

Jersey Mike’s Original Italian sub, left, and Jimmy John’s Vito sub. Photos by Chris Gennone

3. Jimmy John’s

(from the 110 1st Street, Jersey City location) 

Full disclosure: I used to work at a Jimmy John’s in Illinois, so I’ve witnessed its rise to success and eventual expansion to my home state. I apologize that I don’t really have any dirt or juicy details regarding how the sandwiches are prepared. Everything there is actually pretty fresh and prepared well. Though there was that time a friend of mine sliced off a small piece of his thumb which flew into the pickle bin, but that’s another story.

I ordered the Vito with salami, capicola, and provolone with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, white onions, oil, vinegar, oregano and basil. The main appeal of Jimmy John’s sandwiches is the unique French bread they use. I can vouch from experience that it is freshly baked everyday. It’s slightly buttery and light and I appreciate the fact that they rip the breading out for certain sandwiches. The meat tasted very fresh, but I wish there was more of it. I love how thin and stringy the lettuce was. The tomatoes and onions didn’t add much here but were obviously a requirement and they didn’t disappoint. Overall, this was a very solid sandwich but still felt lacking for some reason. It needed a boost somewhere. But at $7.50 for the regular eight-inch sandwich and $4 for the smaller Little John version, you can’t really beat it.

Fun fact: Jimmy John’s has nearly 3,000 locations across the country but only three current locations in NJ.

Vito:
Bread: 7.1
Fillings: 6.6
Toppings: 6.4
Value: 7.0
Overall: 6.7

2. QuickChek

(from the 5100 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, West New York location) 

I am no stranger to QuickChek sandwiches. I used to live a block away from one. They were never anything special, but it was convenient, quick, and cheap. I’ve been there early in the morning for a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, in the middle of the afternoon for a turkey sub, and late at night for snacks. I’ve had some very solid QuickChek sandwiches and then I’ve had abominations where the bread was hard as a rock. This visit, however, was a big surprise.

I bundled up on a very cold mid-morning and drove down JFK Avenue to the most inconvenient of QuickChek locations. It’s off of a busy main road and a side street with a small amount of parking spots. I ordered the six-inch Classic Italian sub with ham, Genoa salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, oil, vinegar and oregano. I was shocked when I got home and unwrapped it. Normally with QuickChek sandwiches, I’m used to the lettuce spilling out everywhere, or the bread to be stale, etc. But this sub was made and wrapped perfectly. The bread was very doughy but it didn’t bother me. There was a decent amount of meat but it wasn’t anything special. I was surprised that the lettuce, tomatoes and onions tasted fresh and the sandwich had the perfect amount of oil and vinegar. But for $4.59, this sub was a hell of a bargain and just edged out Jimmy John’s. Another pleasant surprise.

Fun fact: The original QuickChek location opened in Dunellen in 1967. The family-owned chain now has 153 locations across New Jersey and New York.

Classic Italian:
Bread: 6.7
Fillings: 6.7
Toppings: 6.7
Value: 7.6
Overall: 6.9

QuickChek’s classic Italian sub, left, and Primo Hoagie’s Italian sub. Photos by Chris Gennone

1. Primo Hoagies

(from the 320 Ridge Road, Mahwah location) 

And last but not least, we have Primo Hoagies. I tried Primo’s once when I was in Philadelphia and remember being impressed, especially with its crusty sesame seeded bread. Most of Primo’s locations are in South Jersey, close to its home base in Philly. But I ventured off in the snow to my nearest location in Mahwah.

I ordered a small Italian with prosciutto, hot capicola, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, white onions, oil and vinegar. While I was incredibly disappointed they ran out of the seeded bread and had to resort to the standard white bread, the sandwich itself was a success. While I had to rip it in half myself and my photo may not look too convincing, it was still the best tasting sub I’ve had out of all the chains. The bread, while not as good as the seeded kind, was still solid. The meat and cheese was sliced in front of me and it tasted very fresh. The meat was subtle in a way and never overpowered the sandwich. The lettuce was thinly shredded and the tomatoes and onions were also fresh. Oil and vinegar was used sparingly and gave the sub an extra kick. I can’t say I was surprised that Primo’s made a great sub, but it’s probably the closest you can get to an authentic Italian deli sandwich from chain. Costing $7.49 for a small, it may be a little over the top but the quality of the ingredients makes it worth the price. However, the standard Primo size costs $10.99 which is a little high for a chain. Overall, Primo’s is just a quality sub with fresh ingredients. If you would’ve told me it was from the Italian deli down the street, I probably would’ve believed you.

Primo Italian:
Bread: 7.0 (would’ve been higher with seeded bread)
Fillings: 7.8
Toppings: 7.6
Value: 7.2
Overall: 7.4

Best Bread: Jimmy John’s
Best Fillings: Primo Hoagies
Best Toppings: Primo Hoagies
Best Value: QuickChek
Biggest Surprise: QuickChek
Biggest Disappointment: Wawa

Thanks for coming along with me on this adventure. Frankly, I’m glad it’s over. We’re so lucky to have so many great sandwich options in New Jersey. Whether it’s the roast beef special at Fiore’s in Hoboken, or it’s the Soprano at Andrea’s Salumeria in Jersey City, there’s plenty of authentic deli staples. But if you’re in a jam or looking for a late night option, a sub chain might be your only choice. Every chain’s location is different, but this was based on my own experience. Hopefully this sub chain showdown helps guide you to some kind of satisfaction.

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