When a sandwich is toasted in a hot panini press, it takes on a magical quality. But while every panini is a pressed sandwich, not all pressed sandwiches are panini. These 10 shops and restaurants are where you’ll find the best panini in America.
First things first: In Italian, panino is singular, and panini is plural, so that’s what we’ll be calling them. Second, what exactly is a panino? While there are a couple definitions in Italy (the direct translation of panino is “bread roll”), for today’s purposes we’ll be sticking with the most common definition in America: a sandwich that’s been prepared on a long roll (or anything that isn’t sliced bread) and pressed and toasted in a sandwich press. While you can technically call even a Cuban sandwich a panino, we’re talking specifically about pressed sandwiches served at Italian shops and restaurants.
To make a great panino, you can’t just take any old sub and put it in a press. Many of today’s subs are gargantuan, and the ratio of bread to fillings would be thrown off if the bread were compressed. Also, careful thought must be given to panini fillings: Lettuce will wilt and sog the bread, there can’t be too much of any filling because it’ll make for an uneven sandwich, the cheese must be completely melted, and everything else inside it must be warmed, but not cooked. And while technically an Italian sandwich shop can make a panino with turkey and American cheese, we believe a great panino needs to incorporate traditionally Italian ingredients, like prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil pesto. The bread also needs to be soft enough to compress and get toasty, but firm enough to hold up to flavorful ingredients.
Because there have been no previous national rankings of America’s best panini, in order to assemble our list we first took a deep dive into existing regional and citywide rankings, then sorted through hundreds of shops from across the country on review sites. We ranked our shops in accordance with the following criteria: Quality of ingredients, level of local acclaim and popularity, and the variety of panini on the menu, in both traditional Italian as well as creative interpretations.
In the end, we’re content that these shops and restaurants are serving the best panini in the country. Read on to learn which ones came out on top.
#10 Panini Republic, Chicago
Located in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, this salad and sandwich shop makes its panini assembly line-style, and is a popular lunchtime destinations. Nine panini are on the menu, all toasted to order on your choice of multi-grain loaf, pretzel bread, or a white Italian loaf. Options include the Meat Lover (roasted chicken, pastrami, smoked turkey, bacon, chipotle and garlic sauces, tomato, red onion, and mozzarella), the Little Italy (roasted chicken, smoked turkey, pesto, Thousand Island dressing, spinach, and mozzarella), Bacon Bacon (double bacon, smoked turkey, Thousand Island dressing, pesto, tomato, red onion, and Cheddar), and Chicago Fire (pastrami, roasted chicken, hot harissa, chipotle, tomato, red onion, spinach, and mozzarella). These guys clearly know how to kick the flavor up to 11.
#9 Seb’s Panini, San Diego
Marseilles-born chef Sebastien Delan launched Seb’s Panini stand at the Ocean Beach Farmers Market in San Diego in 2007, and it’s developed a devoted and loyal following since then. Today, he can be found during breakfast and lunch hours at Little Italy Mercato on Saturdays, Hillcrest Farmers Market on Sundays, and the La Jolla USCD Farmers Market on Tuesdays. Folks line up in droves to sample his variety of nearly 20 panini, which are made with fresh-baked ciabatta and toasted for exactly seven minutes. Popular menu items include prosciutto, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, olives, and herbes de Provence; grilled chicken breast with tomatoes, spinach, Cheddar, and aïoli; French Brie, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, and aïoli; and mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, olives, and herbes de Provence. Breakfast panini are made with eggs, Cheddar, spinach, basil, aïoli, and your choice of bacon, black forest ham, turkey pastrami, soy chorizo, or Provençal tomatoes; and dessert panini fillings include Nutella and marshmallow or banana; and green apple, brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter.