The party snack that tore a family apart
The curiously tumultuous history of the six-foot sandwich
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
The Six-Foot Sandwich
A hero (or sub or hoagie or whatever term you prefer for a sandwich on a long, skinny bun), but six feet long.
The USA (originally in New York City).
Like many true-life mysteries, the invention of the six-foot-long sandwich is a tale of family turmoil, despair, broken hearts, and an unhappy ending. Will you forgive the pun if I say this story is no hero’s journey? Because it really is not a hero’s journey.
The central question, the mystery, is how the sandwich got its start in the first place, back in the late 1950s. Was the first person to make it Jimmy Dell'Orto, owner of Hero Boy, or was it his brother Sal, who owned Manganaro Grosseria Italiana next door? The dispute led to a long legal battle that was covered in The New York Times, but there’s never been a conclusive answer or evidence to support a particular claim to this beloved, delicious culinary invention. Until now.
One thing has always been clear: whoever created the six-foot hero got the timing just right. Right around 1960, sandwiches were having a cultural moment. “Midday in Manhattan: The Sandwich is King,” Craig Claiborne reported in the Times that year. “New York is in the throes of a sandwich boom. It is a trend attributed to everything from air conditioning and the rise of new buildings to changing diets and shopping habits.” By 1962, the craze had gone national: “Big Year for Big Sandwiches,” the excellently-named Clementine Paddleford wrote in Washington’s Evening Star, tracing the rise of the hero and its many variations, among them the six-foot hero (Paddleford didn’t list a specific shop name) and a “heroine” sandwich, “more dainty in style.”
It’s well-established that Mongonaro’s was making basic heroes at this point—according to lore cited in the Times in 1957, the sandwich was the creation of the restaurant’s founder, James Manganaro, the uncle of Sal and Jimmy Dell’Orto, in 1905. They were so popular that the family spun off a separate sandwich shop, Hero Boy, in the adjacent storefront in 1956. What’s not mentioned in that 1957 story, though, is anything about a six-footer, and it’s not until two years later, on December 31, 1959, that we get what was long believed to be the first mention of this oversized food in print, in The Christian Science Monitor:
A Ninth Avenue sandwich shop is offering something different: a 25-pound ‘Hero’ sandwich six-feet long. Salvatore Dell'Orto said he made one for a customer who wanted something unusual. Since then four others have placed orders. The king-size, multi-ingredient sandwiches cost $28, are one-foot wide and are delivered on a board.
The claim here is that Sal invented the sandwich—but based on contemporaneous accounts, it’s clear that Jimmy’s shop, next door, was the family’s main seller of heroes, and it, too, added a six-foot version to its menu around the same time.
The dispute over the six-foot sandwiches and whose thing they were quickly devolved into a full-on family feud. By the early 1960s, the brothers weren’t talking to each other, despite owning businesses that shared a brick wall; even their kids didn’t play together or speak to each other, Jimmy’s son Anthony told the Times in 2000.
Part of the issue was the confusing nature of the side-by-side businesses, with customers “placing an order with one Manganaro store, confirming the order with another.” It didn’t help that Jimmy’s business was officially named Manganaro’s Hero-Boy, a name he trademarked, without telling his brother, in 1969, or that in the 1980s, Sal set up a phone number for sandwich orders and called it “Manganaro’s Hero Party Hotline.” In each case, one brother sued the other. The legal battles stretched into the early 2000s. Here’s the Times again, in 2001:
These days, a small hand-lettered red and green sign outside Sal's Grosseria says it all: “Hero-Boy is not affiliated with us!” The court case that summarizes their enmity—Manganaro's Hero-Boy Inc. v. Manganaro Foods Inc.—has spanned 14 years.
In its operatic dimension, the intractable donnybrook has consumed relays of lawyers, judges and court referees, and it occupies thousands of pages of documents that were, literally, rolled into State Supreme Court last year in a wheelbarrow.
Have I mentioned this is all about ownership of a six-foot sandwich? Have I mentioned that the two businesses shared wall? There was also a blinking neon sign reading “Manganaro,” which was officially for Sal’s business, but he turned it off in 2000 because thought it might be benefiting his brother. I assure you this is all just the beginning of the spat, the full details of which could easily be another 10,000 words.
By the time Sal and Jimmy reached an out-of-court settlement in 2002, the brothers hadn’t spoken in more than 25 years and had been duking it out in court for most of that time. Jimmy got control of the hotline but gave up any claim to monetary damages. And, finally, the brothers talked on the phone for ten minutes.
Monganaro’s had been struggling for years, even before the settlement, and it finally closed in 2012. Hero Boy kept going until last year, when it was one of the many restaurants to fall victim to Covid-19.
Their legacy, of course, endures, and these days, you can find the six-foot hero all over—its appeal has spread far beyond its roots. Subway introduced their own version just a few years ago and if you live in a big city, there’s a good chance a local sandwich shop has has one, too (check the catering menu). Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times hailed the six-foot hero as “The Perfect Post-Pandemic Party Food,” noting Hero Boy’s claim to be the birthplace of the elongated edible. But this claim was just that: a boast without verification.
In all these years, the mystery of the origin has endured. The legal disputes may have been about phone numbers and names, but there was also a clear and unresolved sense of pride at stake. Who was the real creator of the six-foot hero?
The other night, I found some new information. As I was searching newspaper and magazine databases, I came across something published even earlier than that Christian Science Monitor piece about Sal Dell'Orto. It appeared in The New York Times on June 25, 1959, on page 30, which was crowded with ads. A large one for Marlboro dominated the page but there were smaller ads jammed into the left column, and one of them was for Hero Boy. Take a look:
I’m fairly certain that this is the earliest mention of a six-foot sandwich or six-foot hero in print.
The clear message of the ad is that the six-foot hero is a star attraction at Jimmy Dell'Orto’s shop. And the key detail is the timing: this ad ran nearly six months before Sal Dell'Orto told a reporter, in late December 1959, that he had recently dreamed up the sandwich and had sold five of them at Manganaro’s.
Given the apparent and instant popularity of the six-foot hero, it’s safe to assume Sal had only been selling it for a month or two before that article—yet all the way back in June, Jimmy was already offering his version, and sufficiently confident in its appeal to promote it in the Times. Most likely, Sal simply saw the success of the new product next door and wanted to get in on it—a typical story of competition, but one that would lead to life-changing tumult.
Which is to say: it's very likely Hero Boy was the first place to sell the six-foot hero and to popularize it. Give Jimmy Dell’Orto the credit. If you’ve ever eaten a party sandwich or purchased one to add some “reliably cheerful” energy to your event, you now know who to thank.
Get it here
You can’t buy either of the original six-foot subs anymore, but try your local deli or sandwich shop, like Alidoro in Manhattan, Eatzi’s in Texas, Little King in Nebraska, and Chalet Market in Billings, Montana. Also available at Subway.
Will you like it?
Food Timeline: “Who invented the six-foot sandwich, where & when?”
The New York Times: “A Family, a Feud and a Six-Foot Sandwich” (This is a good, deep dive into the whole saga, but one quibble: this article claims that the Dell’Orto family came up with the six-foot hero together in 1955, but that doesn’t fit the timelines or the record of news stories from that era.)
The New York Times: “The Perfect Post-Pandemic Party Food: A Six-Foot Hero”
If you enjoy the AITA posts on Reddit (and if those words mean anything to you at all, you probably do enjoy them), here’s “AITA because I ate more than ‘my share’ of a 6 foot party sub last night?”