In New Jersey and New York, the humble Italian sub fuels society. It is often the go-to lunch for blue collar workers, doctors, chefs—you name it. The allure lies in the fact that it has practically everything you need: Meat, cheese, vegetables and bread.
A classic Italian sub usually consists of ham, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, olive oil and red wine vinegar. Though some people enjoy them with mayo, you really should have more respect for yourself than that. Despite the name, it is much more Italian-American than it is authentic Italian. In Italy, sandwiches are much simpler and lighter on the filling than a NJ deli Italian sub, for example.
Variations exist, but the formula remains simple—some type of cured meat, cheese, and a vegetable on a crusty and chewy long roll. My preferred Italian features capicola, hot soppressata, hot peppers, marinated artichokes, red wine vinegar, EVOO and a seeded roll.
In Philly, the sandwich is called a “hoagie,” while New Englanders might call it a “grinder” and some New Yorkers will even refer to it as a “hero” (though hero can be used to describe hot sandwiches as well).
However, 11,600+ miles from New York and New Jersey exists another Italian sub, donning a completely different name, but eerily similar makeup. In Perth, Australia, people rave about “continental rolls,” or “conti rolls” for short.
What Is a Conti Roll?
A conti roll is not all that different from an Italian sub you’d find in the New York Metro. It includes a variety of cured meats like mortadella and capicola, a crusty and chewy roll and a mix of condiments, with the most popular options being sun-dried tomatoes and pickled eggplant. Many Aussies opt to top their conti rolls with decidedly more “Australian” ingredients like grated carrots, spicy aioli and beets.
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The History of the Conti Roll
In Perth, which is isolated from the rest of Australia by means of the Australian Outback, Italian immigrants were steadily coming to the city since the late 19th Century. However, it was during the 20’s and 30’s when the stream of italian immigrants boomed.
It is not entirely known when the first conti rolls appeared in Perth, but the sandwich is most famously associated with two delis, Di Chiera Brothers Continental Store and The Re Store.
The Re Store is an Italian grocery that was opened by the son of a Sicilian immigrant in 1936. The store carried Italian specialties like salumi, cheese, olive oil and more. The full timeline of The Re Store’s emergence in Perth, which started decades prior with the family’s emigration in 1885, can be read here.
Though The Re Store was one of the earliest shops in Perth selling all the ingredients for a conti roll, the sandwich is thought to have come to fruition in the 50’s when Di Chiera Brothers Continental Store opened in town. The Di Chiera family came to Perth following World War II. Like Re Store, their grocery would operate as a one-stop shop for Italian goods. However, the brothers’ more new-school approach to operating a shop led them to add sandwiches to the menu as a way to use up the end pieces of different salumi. Eventually, the sandwiches caught on with the general public, and many non-Italian Perth residents began to call it the continental roll and eventually shortening it to simply, the conti roll.
Di Chiera Brothers Continental Grocery closed in 2017 after close to 70 years in business.
A Tale of Immigration
Australia as a whole experienced Italian immigration during the 20th Century and with it, came plenty of Italian shops across the country. However, even today, the conti roll remains a niche item, specific to Perth. You could grab a conti roll at select places outside of Perth, but its abundance and history remains in the West Coast city—isolated from the rest of the Australian populace. Much like how Italian subs exist elsewhere in the US, but are never as abundant or good as they are on the East Coast.
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The conti roll is to Perth what the Italian sub is to the New York Metro. Both items, though differing in name, formed in the wake of a wave of Italian immigration. Italian imports were combined with many local ingredients to form something that is definitively and uniquely its own thing.
But, what can’t be overlooked, is that neither the Italian sub or the Conti roll are really all that authentic Italian at all. Go to a US deli and ask for a conti roll and they’ll look at you like you have two heads. Go to Perth and order an Italian sub and they’ll probably ask you to repeat what you said. But, go to Italy and ask for either… well they just might chase you out of the country.
About the Author/s
Peter Candia is the Food + Drink Editor at New Jersey Digest. A graduate of The Culinary Institute of America, Peter found a passion for writing midway through school and never looked back. He is a former line cook, server and bartender at top-rated restaurants in the tri-state area. In addition to food, Peter enjoys politics, music, sports and anything New Jersey.