National Hoagie Day on May 5 offers us a welcome alternative to the seemingly endless baskets of chips and salsa and mugs of cheap Mexican beer Americans consume to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Today you can confidently say “no” to tacos and burritos, and take your buns to the local deli for a hoagie. Or a sub. Or a grinder. Or a hero. Because a hoagie is a hoagie by any other name, especially on National Hoagie Day.
History of National Hoagie Day
Philadelphia is famously known for mouthwatering steak and cheese subs, but did you know the City of Brotherly Love is also famous for another epicurean delight served on a big beautiful bun: the hoagie? It is the humble hoagie of Italian immigrant heritage that holds the title “Official Sandwich of Philadelphia,’ not the steak and cheese sub.
The traditional Italian hoagie is a generous sandwich of Italian deli meats and cheeses stuffed into a split long roll, brimming with pepperoncini peppers and veggies, topped with a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar, and seasonings. There are no fewer than a dozen credible stories laying claim to who was responsible for inventing the first long bread Italian sandwich in America. Most stories point to the New England states where many Italian immigrants settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although whose mama or papa is truly responsible for assembling the first hoagie in Philadelphia will always be up for debate, we do know that hoagie naming rights belong to the city of Philadelphia.
The most popular story of how the Italian sandwich got the name hoagie in Philadelphia is one cited by the now-defunct “Philadelphia Bulletin,” Philly’s daily evening newspaper published from 1847 to 1982. The paper’s story revolves around the lunch box staple of 1950s Italian immigrant workers in a Philadelphia shipyard known as Hog Island, a long bread roll stuffed with Italian meats and cheeses. The sandwiches were commonly referred to as “Hog Island sandwiches.” The name was eventually shortened to “hoggies,” which, when said with a south Philadelphia accent, sounded more like “hoagies,” and the moniker stuck.
Two other local Philadelphia publications disagreed with the Bulletin’s published story, both insisting that Philadelphia’s hoagie roots could be traced all the way back 1879. According to the Philadelphia Almanac and the Citizen’s Manual, street vendors known as hokey pokey men sold bakery rolls called pinafores stuffed with antipasto salad and meats to theatre patrons before and after attending the operetta, (light opera,) “H.M.S. Pinafore” by the famed writer-composer duo of Gilbert and Sullivan. The pinafores were commonly referred to as hokies, which again sounded a lot like hoagies in South Philly.
Regardless of who first stuffed all those delicious meats and cheeses into a split Italian long roll, topped it with peppers and drizzled oil and seasonings on top, the name hoagie stuck like the newspaper it was first wrapped with in the city of Philadelphia. By the end of World War II, the term hoagie was quite common on the streets of Philadelphia, and Philly’s favorite sandwich was turning up on restaurant menus all around the city, spelled hoagie, hoggie, hoogie, and hoagy.
As the hoagie’s popularity breached city boundaries and spread to other parts of the country away from the east coast, the term hoagie took on new definitions. Hoagie eventually became a catch-all name for any sandwich served on a long bread roll. In Philadelphia, however, the hoagie remains true to its Italian roots as an Italian meat and cheese sandwich covered with roasted and pickled veggies and peppers, with oil, vinegar, and seasonings topping it all.