Hoagies are synonymous with Philadelphia, right? Not if you ask locals in Delaware County, where the DiCostanza family has been making sandwiches on long rolls layered with Italian meats, sharp provolone, and vegetables since 1925, when a gambler from Palermo’s bar wandered into the family’s nearby grocery store in Chester’s West End and asked “Mom” (a.k.a. Catherine DiCostanza) to make him something special.
That’s just one of a half a dozen hoagie origin stories, of course, including the ever-popular theory that the sandwich and name descend from the lunches of World War I shipbuilders on Hog Island (where Philadelphia International Airport now stands, yes, on Tinicum Island, Delaware County). None have been definitively proven. What is certain is that the DiCostanza family still makes hoagies nearly a century later, now in Boothwyn.
It’s also evident from even a casual drive down MacDade Boulevard — where decades-old independent sandwich shops dot the landscape every couple blocks — that this sandwich culture rooted in the Italian immigrant tradition is still going strong in Delco and hoagies remain one of the primary food groups. Delconians even have their own hoagie style, with a requisite heft and a top layer of meat (“the Delco meat wrap”) that sometimes sheaths the roll’s opening in a layer of cold cuts, almost always pepper ham.
“We want to show Philly up so we put more on there,” jokes Dave Avicolli of Ro-Lynn Delicatessen in Brookhaven, which builds its sandwiches with both top and bottom layers.
Avicolli’s swagger is well-earned. The various sandwiches I tasted from Ro-Lynn easily rank among the best I’ve had from any hoagie shop across the Philadelphia region. It wasn’t a Delco fluke. I visited nine well-regarded shops across the county and brought a fragrant feast of hoagies, cheesesteaks, and specialty sandwiches to our friends Dave and Nika Haase’s home in Swarthmore for a Delco Hoagie Showdown, complete with beers from Aston’s 2SP and Media’s Sterling Pig to assure proper terroir with the beverage pairings.
We had a blast, and definitely had our favorites. There was hardly a bad sandwich in the lot.
Dave Avicolli and Steve Yancey started as teenagers at this Italian deli founded in 1965 by the Carmolino family, then bought it in 1988. They’ve since turned into a sandwich shrine that rises on quality ingredients (more imported meats than most Delco shops; seeded Liscio’s rolls) and no shortcut preparations, like the house-dried and grated bread crumbs that elevate their juicy-yet-crisp cutlets to cult status. Definitely try the cutlet special with broccoli rabe, roast peppers, and provolone. But Ro-Lynn’s signature Italian, the Godfather, is also a standout in the genre, graced with real Parma prosciutto, fresh roasted peppers, and a seeded roll anointed with extra-virgin olive oil.
📍3407 Edgmont Ave., Brookhaven, 📞 610-872-9575; 🌐 rolynndeli.com
I loved the extra pop of the pepper shooters stuffed with provolone and prosciutto that lend a zesty spark to the Old Italian at this Newtown Square standby opened by Michael and Traci Carneglia in 1995, who came from South Philly and South Jersey and introduced Delco to the concept of seeded rolls. Michael’s young training as a butcher informs the handmade quality here, with all meats cut in house, including a steamship of prime roast beef that provides all the deep and juicy savor their crusty rolls can hold.
📍3523 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square, 📞 610-353-4543; 🌐 acutabovedeli.com
The vintage vibes are palpable at this 91-year-old sandwich shop, founded in 1931, where the house T-shirts set the sandwich record straight (“It’s not a sub, it’s a hoagie”) and the fourth-generation crew still gets it right on the roll. These had the most handmade feel of the sandwiches we ate on MacDade, with a nearly ripe tomato (in January!) and imported meats in the mix, as well as a cheesesteak with ribbon-cut beef (vs. the more common fine chop) that allowed both the quality of the meat and sweetness of onions to shine through. Takeout only.
📍601 MacDade Boulevard, Folsom, 📞 610-461-9194; 🌐 mikeandemmassandwichshop.com
Debbie Morrison, the goddaughter of a LaSpada family member, owns the longest-running location of the independently operated three-branch chain, and her Italian hoagie hit all the classic notes of the MacDade Boulevard style — hearty but well-balanced, whose oregano-dusted veggies were topped with a pepper ham wrap that went straight from slicer to the bread. The finely chopped cheesesteak, with well-seasoned meat and fully melted-in cheese, was also solid. Also my go-to spot for hoagie dip.
📍1002 MacDade Boulevard, Milmont Park, 📞 610-461-9023; 🌐 laspadasonmacdade.com
The “home of the 18 incher!” is definitely a bang-for-your-buck haven, where one large sandwich could probably feed the whole Sharon Hill High School basketball team. I’m usually wary of jumbo sandwiches, but these were all well-built from decent, fresh ingredients, with a classic pepper ham lid on its hoagie and an overflowing steak that possibly contained more cheese than meat.
📍1403 Chester Pike, Folcroft, 📞 610-586-1199; 🌐 leossteakshop.com
Liberty is a no-frills, cash-only sandwich haunt that builds its sandwiches methodically. “This ain’t Subway, we don’t use presliced meat here,” the counterman told me as I watched him work, carefully hunting for just the prime bits of iceberg to give our sandwich its fresh crunch. The finished products were solidly MacDadian, from the pepper ham meat wrap atop the ample hoagie to the finely chopped, fully cheesed steak.
📍1937 MacDade Blvd., Woodlyn, 📞 610-872-9304; 📷 instagram.com/libertysteaksandhoagies
No, it’s not a hoagie spot. But I still needed to stop by this cheerful street-food classic in Milmont Park (est. 1932), which sells an outstanding roast pork and a sweet sausage-pepper sandwich we’d return for. Habitués brag about the fresh burgers, too, but, oddly, the Texas Tommy hot dog was a disappointment.
📍401 W. MacDade Blvd., Milmont Park, 📞 610-915-3777; 🌐 the-hot-dog-stand.yolasite.com:
I value the history of any family business that’s been at it as long as this OG hoagie maker, which dates to 1925. Our visit to the current location just off I-95, however, encountered some of the least-remarkable sandwiches of the week.
📍1930 Market St, Boothwyn, 📞 610-494-3616; 🌐 dicostanzasandwiches.com
There’s an admirable level of quality to the ingredients one might expect from one of the area’s premier gourmet foods markets. But high-volume demand isn’t kind to the sandwich art, especially when it results in pre-packed hoagies in the fridge case. Our turkey hoagie could have been fantastic if made fresh-to-order. Unfortunately, our grab-and-go sandwich was dry and falling apart.
📍713 S. Chester Rd., Swarthmore, and 211 State St, Media, 📞 610-328-7211 (Swarthmore); 610-565-8320 (Media), 🌐 the320marketcafe.com