Signature Series: The Maine-Style “Italian” Sandwich

The Maine-style “Italian” sandwich doesn’t always get a ton of respect, primarily, it seems, because there is very little about it that has anything to do with Italy. In fact, an investigation into the sandwich’s history reveals that referring to these sandwiches as “Italians” may have less to do with the ingredients, and may simply be a reference to the nationality of the inventor. In 1902, in his tiny bakery on Portland’s working waterfront, Giovanni Amato allowed local dockworkers to talk him into splitting his bread loaves lengthwise, then piling them with meat, cheese, and vegetables. The resulting sandwich, which today typically includes a thin layer of boiled ham, sliced American cheese, sliced tomatoes, green pepper, onion, olives (black or kalamata), and a finish of oil, salt, and pepper, is one of the last true “regional” food specialties. Travel South of Kittery, and you’ll continue to see lots of sandwiches for sale at gas stations. You’ll find lots of hoagies, grinders, subs, and heroes. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a real Italian.

Throughout Maine, to order a “Ham Italian” would be redundant; the ham is implied (the best ham always is), and included automatically, unless you were to specifically request a “Turkey Italian” or a “Roast Beef Italian.” This can get confusing in some shops, where ordering a sandwich made with a combination of meats using this naming convention would require you to (somewhat awkwardly) ask for a “Italian Cold Cut Combo Italian,” which will almost certainly baffle the person you are talking to.

After eating hundreds of versions of this sandwich (not to mention naming my favorites in Portland), I knew it was finally time to work on my own version. I’m sure most of you realize how fraught with peril such an idea is; Mainers are protective of their Italians, and too much mucking around with the ingredients would make the resulting product a perfectly good sandwich, but not a tried-and-true Maine Italian.

I’m serious. You should see how much hate mail I continue to receive for suggesting that our readers put sausage in their American Chop Suey. I had to find a way to tweak the original, without changing what the sandwich fundamentally is.

Here’s what I’ve come up with, broken down by ingredients:

The Bread
The bread on a traditional Italian is nothing like the crusty, chewy loaves you’ll find South of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that links Kittery and Portsmouth. Instead, the texture of the bread used for a Maine Italian has more in common with a giant New England-style split-top hot dog bun. It’s the kind of loaf that is so tied to the sandwich’s identity, that to change it would mean changing the sandwich itself. It’s also the kind of loaf that I suspect is out of reach of most home bakers; these things need to be mass-produced, made of hyper-bleached enriched white flour, and slurped dry of any nutritional value.

For our sandwich, I went with something off-the-shelf, a bag of four 12-inch giants from the supermarket bakery that were helpfully labeled “Italian Sandwich Loaves.” If you live in a part of the country where these aren’t available, which I suspect is anywhere outside Maine, I would make “mini Italians” using hot dog buns. Changing up the texture of the bread in any way is simply not going to offer the same experience, and you’re better off eating two smaller, hot dog-sized sandwiches.

The Cheese
I considered swapping out the traditional American cheese for something with a little more flavor, like provolone, but the weird properties of American cheese are such a major part of the Italian sandwich eating experience that I just couldn’t bear to do it. In a Maine Italian, the American cheese liquefies, presumably in response to the moisture from the vegetables and oil, forming a thin protective layer that guards the bottom slice of bread against too much oil-seepage, especially when wrapped in butcher paper and stored overnight. Stripping the sandwich of these unique properties seemed almost criminal, so I left the cheese alone.

Maine Italian Sandwich

The Meat
For our signature version of this sandwich, I had to part ways with tradition just a little bit. The meat is a great place to get creative; the boiled ham on a Maine Italian is such a minor component of the finished product, that you can make some substitutions here without raising too many eyebrows. For our sandwich, I went with fatty mortadella, and a few slices of Genoa salami for texture and just a hint of spice.

The Vegetables
Again, there’s not a lot of room to muck around here. If you’re making a Maine Italian, you’ve gotta include tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. I like to use tart sour pickles, sliced into thin spears so that you get a little pickle in every bite. Rather than choose between black and kalamata olives, I prefer to buy a mix of different pitted varieties, and then chop them in a food processor with a few banana peppers into a kind of poor-man’s tapenade, which I spread on one side of the bread. If you don’t like olives, or if this seems too crazy, by all means, feel free to skip this step.

A final word about vegetables: Stack them vertically in the sandwich, so that it can be closed and eaten normally. The Amato’s chain doesn’t do this, which makes eating an Amato’s Italian sometimes seem more like eating a soft tray of oily vegetables.

The Oil
Opinions vary here; Amato’s uses a blend of vegetable and olive oils. I prefer the stronger flavor of a good olive oil, particularly a garlic or chile infused oil.

The resulting sandwich breaks from tradition here and there, but honors the original. And like the original, our version of the Maine Italian is pure junk food addiction that pings all of your pleasure receptors: Salty, sour, spicy, crunchy, oily, and messy. It’s food meant to be eaten either at the beach where you can clean off afterward with a dip in the frigid ocean, or more likely, to be eaten by yourself in the middle of the night while standing over the sink, washed down with half a bottle of Moxie.

Maine Italian Sandwich

The Maine-Style “Italian” Sandwich
Makes one sandwich


  • 1 twelve inch soft white sub sandwich roll
  • 2-3 slices American cheese, cut in half
  • 4-6 slices mortadella
  • 4-6 slices Genoa salami
  • Sliced tomato, green pepper, onion, and sour pickles
  • 1 cup assorted pitted olives (green,black, and Kalamata)
  • 1/4 cup banana peppers
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste


Slice bread 2/3 of the way through. Line bottom half with cheese, then sliced meat. Top with vegetables, arranged vertically for easy eating.

In a food processor, pulse olives and peppers into a coarse paste, and spread on top half of bread. Drizzle liberally with oil, and finish with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or allow everything to melt together in the fridge overnight.

Maine Italian Sandwich

Malcolm Bedell


Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," with writing and photography credits including Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and more. His seasonal food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater, and he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

  1. I read your article, and totally disagree on your take on the roll. In my opinion the taste and the texture of the roll in no way is a hot dog roll. The roll is the key in my opinion. Amato’s has the real Italian, and most of the locals here feel that way, Italians included.

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    1. Thanks Annemarie. I’m a big fan of Amato’s, as well, and have written about the chain several times on this site. I maintain, however, that the bread used there has more in common with a giant squishy hot dog bun, than it does with a baguette. This is not intended as a criticism; it’s this very bread that makes an Italian different than similar sandwiches.

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      1. But where is this bread coming from? Amato’s? You cant get it any where else, so it seems… or can you? Everywhere else uses a crusty bread. When dating a Mainer and buying an Italian for a picnic, she gave me a look when she looked at it.. “This is not an Italian!?” When she told me what it was, It was hard not to say “What? A ham and cheese”

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      2. When biting into a real Italian, it’s not just the texture of the roll, but the taste of it too. I’ve only recently returned home to Maine after being away for many years and the fresh light slightly-sweet taste of the Amato’s roll is not duplicated anywhere. I know – I’ve tried a lot of them. 🙂

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    2. I have heard said that Latini created the First Italian… Amato’s opened just after they did. Latini closed due to problems with The Black Hand, a sort of mafia of the Portland waterfront. One of the Latini brothers was sweet on Mary Amato, so much, especially the newly created sandwich, drifted over to Amatos for good when Latini’s shop closed its doors for good.
      Liz Burton

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  2. I agree, the hot dog roll is no substitute for the Italian roll…and yes finding them outside of the state is extremely hard to do. However, I would suggest using the little rolls used primarily to make finger sandwich party platters… the texture and yeastyness are more akin & a lot of chain grocers have them.

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  3. I’m not sure I agree about the bread either, but that’s a good idea with the tapenade! For me the hard part is the pickles. I live in Seattle, and having Amatos ship me a big jar occasionally is the only way I’ve gotten them sour enough. I’ll try out the hot dog bun idea For Science, but I’ve really just given up on that part and use a nice artisan olive bread instead.

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  4. You sir have desecrated all that is right about the Maine Italian sandwich and shown your true out-of-stater/flatlander/West Coast roots. My only hope is that you will raise your child as a native and they will grow up to be a true Mainer and respect all that is holy about this glorious traditional sandwich. What’s next, a recipe for a no mashed potatoes Needham?! make your own Moxie?! A non-boiled boiled dinner?!

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  5. I am a Mainer living in exile in Arizona – and every time I go home to visit Maine, Italians are at the top of my list of food I “have to eat” while I’m there. I have to tell you, even the hot dog buns they sell out here don’t cut it, they don’t taste right. So I’m still relegated to a once-a-year treat when I come to where the real Italians are made. 🙂

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  6. Although these local sandwiches are tasty, the name is “real Italian” is misleading. The first time a ordered and ate one I thought it was a mistake and a gyp. Being from New York, Italian sandwiches are truly so much better and represent that real Italian ingrediants are used. Mortadella, salami, provolone, ham, roasted red peppers with garlic and pickled eggplant.
    It seems that the bread is the contoversial vessel here on this blog. Obtaining a wonder bread type of roll out of state is like seaching for the lost ark. So maybe a hot dog roll is the way to go when needing a subsitute. These rolls while somewhat tasty, they cannot stand up to the ingrediants in which they hold. Therefore, a sturdier and better type of bread could be used with more postive results.
    Kudos to Malcolm for trying to elevate a regional sandwich into something more.

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  7. But… you forgot the onions!

    That said, grinding the olives up to make a spread is frankly the stroke of brilliance I needed… I can never get the right amount of olive in each bite (I am a black olive fiend) and this just might do it.

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  8. I hope that all of the people who have commented are aware of the fact that you’re trying. It’s really easy to knock someone’s post. But I hope that they are aware that you are a die-hard fan of the food and are trying your best to replicate it without the original ingredients. Love to you from Boston!

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  9. Amato’s was not the first or the best “italian” sandwich maker, but they have outlasted the others and prospered, so good for them.

    The bread was/is the thing that makes it better. I have never found that bread elsewhere, I think it is the slight sweetness that separates this bread/roll from others. I always order mine with no olives.

    And yes, for many people from away, the Maine Italian is a somewhat stingy sandwich. But then again, it was originally made for people who did not have a lot of money and did physical labor.
    And we don’t denigrate the New York deli sandwich, or the other similar sandwiches – we always felt “to each, their own” in taste as life.

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  10. Oh – The Italian Sandwich! I grew up in Maine and have been in the Midwest for 36 years. Most every year when I fly home (if it’s not too late at night) first thing I do is find an Italian! Tomorrow my KS kids and grandkids will be here and we’re having Italians for lunch. The rolls ARE the hardest part. Maine baked beans for supper. Life is good!

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  11. In your initial listing of ingredients you left out pickles. The Maine Italian sandwich differs in several respects from sandwiches elsewhere. For one, Amato’s is the standard against which all other Maine Italian sandwiches are judged. I don’t know of any other state which has a recognized standard. Secondly, the Maine Italian has a lighter, more vegetable flavor than those outside Maine. Vegetables dominate with light meat and cheese overtones. It is important that the vegetable flavors be balanced, so it’s important that the slices be cut right. The dressing is lighter than many elsewhere. Oil, vinegar and water would be my guess. As noted the bread is also special. In the end, it’s a very clean flavor.

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  12. This isn’t a Maine Italian that you gone and made, this is something I would expect to find out of state. It’s all wrong. I’ve never seen an Italian with these ingredients anywhere. And I’ve eaten Italians at no name hole in the wall gas stations around Maine. Chopped olives? Genoa Salami?? (What is this Masshole meat You speak of?)

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  13. I was talking to a friend yesterday who lives in Plymouth and he was talking about the Maine Italian sandwich that he had for lunch. Being in Colorado we don’t have variations of anything (kinda sad) he was also talking about the MA Italian. Its all so confusing that I had to google it! This looks yummy! Ill have to give it a try!

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  14. I applaud your attempt to recreate the Maine regional sandwich known as the “italian.” I grew up in Maine and ate local “italians” until I went to school in Portland and switched to Amato’s. I moved to Florida when I was 23 and I remember the quizzical look on the face of the gentleman at the counter of the local Italian Market when I asked him if he sold “italian” sandwiches. I had to describe what I wanted. He then made me his version of an “italian” which was absolutely wonderful but not what I asked for. I’ve now lived in several areas of the country and tried lots of “italian” sandwiches. Most of them are hearty and delicious but when I’m in Maine I still stop at Amato’s and grab a sandwich and enjoy a trip down memory lane.

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  15. When we were quiteyoung we would make our annual pilgrimage to Bangor for shopping. On our way back to the Moosehead Lake area we would stop at the little tiny store in Kenduskeag. There a small elderly lady and I believe her daughter would make the most wonderful Italian sandwiches. They were incredibly delicious.

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  16. First – for those who are using a hot dog roll as a substitute – remember it is the New England version of a split top roll (crust on top but not sides) – not the bun that is used elsewhere. Even then, it’s not the same (the Italian rolls are more substantial – breadier). Second – if you want to use Genoa salami, capicola, provolone, etc. – go ahead. It may not be the classic – but even Amato’s has variations with these ingredients on their menu. Same goes for tuna, roast beef, turkey, etc. It’s all good and pretty much available at all the places in Maine where you can score an Italian. Many shops in my experience will skip the olives unless you ask. At Amato’s – go with the black olives unless you are a fan of greek ones which are overpowering IMO. What you should not substitute is the tomatoes, pickle, green pepper. Onions really make it great, but I will sometimes skip them if I don’t want onion breath, gas, etc. If you add lettuce or mayo – you have strayed too far. Amato’s is the original – an immigrant named Giovanni Amato invented the sandwich in 1902 as an inexpensive workingman’s lunch – selling them to dock worker’s on the Portland waterfront. As a poor college kid in the early 1980s – I lived on these – they used to be $2. There is a place in the blue collar town of Lewiston, ME that still sells them for that price every Wednesday.

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  17. Hello, I used to go to restaurant near what is now Hannafords in Brunswick,Maine.They had an excellant sandwich called a hot weggie,does anyone remember ingrediants or recipes?Thanx so much

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  18. Hello, I used to go to restaurant near what is now Hannafords in Brunswick,Maine.They had an excellant sandwich called a hot veggie,does anyone remember ingrediants or recipes?Thanx so much

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  19. Many years ago, when Amato sandwiches were $.29, my wife introduced me to the “Italian Sandwich” from the original India Street store where one could watch (excuse the description) the little old lady spear a tomato, pepper or onion and deftly carve off slices and do the same with the onion and pickle. You thought sure she was going to cut her finger or worse but she carried out her job one sandwich after another. Sometimes depending on the time of day there were as many as twenty sandwiches being worked on at a time in order to meet the demand standing in front of the counter. Today you can find Amato sandwiches across the state but they are not the same. They have the same ingredients but they are put together with chopped onion and peppers and smaller tomato slices so they tend to fall apart as you eat them. In any case when we make our annual trip to Maine the first evening meal is most always an Amato Italian sandwich the first of many we usually eat. Who can go to Maine and not eat an Amato?

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  20. Hi Malcolm, my wife and I are from the South Shore of Ma.
    It seems when you leave the 30 mile radius of Boston, everything Italian goes to hell.
    Here in “Down East” Me. you can’t get a real Italian cold cut.
    So we resort to make our own,really a rip-off of Maria’s of Scituate Harbor.
    Your recipe is good,but,a Boston Sub has CHOPPED veggies and NO LETTUCE.
    The ingredients can vary with each person, so, give the following a try.
    Bread is important, not too soft, not too crusty.
    For 1 sub.
    Slice down the middle of a 6″ sub roll almost to the bottom crust.
    wrap in a paper towel and warm up in the toaster oven. Caution, you got a paper towel in there.
    Keep wrapped while preparing the ingredients.
    Get 3 small bowls in front of you for veggies.
    1 nice ripe tomato, chopped.
    1/4 of a white onion, vidalia or spanish chopped.
    1 med. kosha dill pickle chopped with some juice.
    Put veggies into the bowls, and the pickles with juice.
    2 slices of cheese,your choice of provolone,swiss, mortadella or any combo.
    2 slices of salami or ham or turkey or any combo.
    Open up the bread and remove some of the soft inside.
    In goes cheese first, then the meat.
    If you like hots, like Pastines hot crushed peppers, or any hot pepper chopped, add 1 t. or T. now.
    Add a heaping T. of onions, 1 heaping T. of pickles with juice.
    Top off with tomatoes, & chopped black olives.
    Add more hots, O.O., & oregano, S&P.
    At Maria’s, there is a sign, ” we don’t serve lettuce in our subs”
    Wash down with a Black and Tan Beer.

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  21. As a native Vermonter living in Maine, I am disgusted by any Italians I’ve tried in Maine or any other “Grinders” I’ve had here. I grew up in Vermont above a small delicatessen that made them, worked there for my first job, and I can tell you that I haven’t seen anything in Maine even comparable. Check out Gill’s Delicatessen in Rutland, VT or their Facebook page. They opened in the 60s and make their own bread fresh daily. And cabbage! I can’t find any places in Maine that use cabbage!

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