New England-based D’Angelo has been around since 1967, and they sell sandwiches (both hot and cold), soups (go for the Maine Lobster Bisque), salads, sandwiches, and wraps. You can build your own, but favorites include The Animal (steak or chicken topped with caramelized onions, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, American cheese, and Thousand Island dressing), Da Bomb (steak or chicken with grilled onions, bell peppers and mushrooms, Genoa salami, hot capicola, and Provolone cheese), the Thanksgiving Toasted, and their seasonal lobster sandwich, made with 100 percent real lobster.
None other than superstar chef Tom Colicchio is behind this stylish New York-based chain of gourmet sandwich shops, and it lives up to every expectation. Breakfast sandwiches, served all day, include fried eggs with bacon, gorgonzola, and frisée, and lunchtime offerings include slow-roasted Berkshire pork with red cabbage, jalapeños, and Dijon; roasted turkey with avocado, bacon, onion relish, and aioli; grilled flank steak with red pepper and almond pesto, grilled red onions, and aged Cheddar; and goat cheese with avocado, celery, walnut pesto, and watercress, served on ciabatta, multigrain bread, or grilled country bread. No cold cuts here; these sandwich are high-end cuisine.
Founded in 1982 in Columbus, Ohio, Steak Escape serves some stellar cheesesteaks (theirs comes with onions, mushrooms, peppers, and provolone), but there’s also a solid salad bar, and a baked potato not to miss: smashed on the grill, it’s served in a bowl topped with meat, cheese, and all the toppings you want.
Don’t let the name fool you: Penn Station East Coast Subs was founded in 1985 in Cincinnati, and has nothing to do with the grubby New York train terminal that’s known for its abysmal food. Instead, this chain, with more than 260 locations in 13 states, and focuses on fresh-squeezed lemonade, fresh-cut fries, and sandwiches (that can be ordered in four sizes) with comforting names like the Philadelphia Cheesesteak, the Reuben, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Pizza (with pepperoni, ham, provolone, Parmesan, and pizza sauce), and a classic Italian. Lighter options include grilled artichoke and grilled vegetables, and on the other end of the spectrum is the Dagwood, with a choice of meats, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, banana peppers, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, oregano, and mayo. Make sure to save room for the cheesebread and a fresh-baked cookie.
Based in the United Kingdom but popping up in major cities all over the world, Pret is a lunchtime ideal: Sandwiches are grab-and go, but are served on fresh baguettes and filled with egg salad and arugula; balsamic chicken and avocado; Cheddar, avocado, spinach, and kale; and chipotle chicken, bacon, and avocado. All sandwiches (and soups, salads, and desserts) are made fresh throughout the day, and anything that’s left over is donated to local charities.
Miami Subs is primarily located in Florida and the Carolinas, but new locations will soon start to sprout up all over the world (openings are promised in New Zealand, Jordan, and Guyana, to name a few). Offerings include seven types of cheesesteaks, burgers, salads, wings, and as part of a partnership, Nathan’s hot dogs and Arthur Treacher’s fish and chips. Gyros and chicken pitas round out the menu. And hey, beer!
This West Coast-based chain has been serving big, made-to-order sandwiches since 1971. Fresh-baked breads come piled with BBQ beef, meatballs, turkey and bacon, the classic Italian combo, and all the traditional favorites. There are also soups, salads, and wraps.
Founded in 1986 on Ohio State’s Columbus campus and still based there, Charley’s now has more than 500 locations in 48 states and more than 20 countries. So what spurs such a rapid expansion? UDSA Choice steak grilled right in front of the customer, fresh-squeezed lemonade, killer cheese fries, and a menu rounded out by fresh-made deli sandwiches.
Founded in 1993 just outside Atlanta, Atlanta Bread fresh-bakes nearly 20 different varieties of bread, and uses them as a base for some seriously delicious sandwiches. Favorites include salmon banh mi, chicken salad, chargrilled chicken pesto, fresh Caprese, and Buffalo chicken. There’s also a wide variety of salads and daily-rotating soups.
Blimpie has been around for nearly 50 years, and has firmly cemented its place in the American chain sandwich landscape. They still offer a no-frills approach to sandwich-making, one that isn’t breaking much new ground but keeps business brisk and has earned it a devoted cult following: fresh bread, quality meats and cheeses, and speedy service. They’ve also rolled out a "The Lighter Stuff" menu with offerings of less than 400 calories and 6 grams of fat, as well as an app.
McAlister’s was founded in 1989 in Oxford, Miss., in a renovated gas station, and there are currently more than 300 locations in 23 states. It’s perhaps best known for its sweet tea, but the sandwiches take center stage: they’re divided into Hot, Grilled, Club, and Classic menus, and supplemented with inspired seasonal offerings, like the Turkey Cranberry Griller, with Butterball smoked turkey, gorgonzola cheese, cranberry compote, and Granny Smith apples. Make sure you save room for one of their famous baked potatoes, too.
In order to place your order at Which Wich, headquartered in Dallas, you use a Sharpie to mark up a sandwich bag, naming your preference of 10 categories. After you’re done eating, you can scribble on the bag and tack it to the wall. But of course it’s what’s inside the bag that matters: The super-customizable sandwiches range from French dip au jus to a corn and black bean patty, and from Sriracha tuna to turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. If one of these opens near you, you’d be wise to check it out.
With about 150 locations nationwide, Corner Bakery Café is slowly but surely working its way into the sandwich scene. They offer a solid selection of creative paninis, including chicken with spinach, basil, roasted tomatoes, and provolone cheese, signature sandwiches like roast beef, arugula, and goat cheese on potato thyme bread, and "Mom’s Sandwiches" like smoked ham on white bread for the traditionalists. There are also breakfast scramblers, salads, soups, and fresh-baked pastries.
The popular Texas-based Jason’s Deli has more than 240 locations in 28 states, and business is booming. So what’s the secret? A wide variety of both pre-designed and build-your-own offerings (including a killer muffaletta),a solid salad bar, and a commitment to change with the times: they’ve eliminated trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup from their menus, offer "lighter portion" options, and have rolled out gluten-free offerings as well.
Firehouse Subs doesn’t just get its name from the hot sandwiches it sells; it was actually founded by two firefighters, brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen, in Jacksonville, Fla. in 1994. Today there are more than 600 locations across the country, and they all have firehouse-inspired touches (as well as Coke Freestyle dispensers, the first major chain to have them). Subs also have firehouse-inspired names, like the Hook & Ladder (turkey, ham, and melted Monterrey Jack); other specialty subs include the Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket, with beef brisket that’s been smoked for more than 16 hours topped with Cheddar and sauce. Their meatball sub is also killer.
One of the classics, Au Bon Pain was the first sandwich chain to take the gourmet route. Founded in Boston in 1978, the chain is known for its coffee, soups, pastries, and, of course, sandwiches. Sandwiches come both hot and cold, in varieties like Black Angus roast beef and herb cheese, chicken salad on country white with cranberries and almonds, and Chicken Pomodoro on ciabatta. The layout and atmosphere tends to be a bit more chilled-out than other chain sandwich shops, and you’d really still be hard-pressed to leave an Au Bon Pain unsatisfied.
Spun off of Boston Market in 1995 as a way to sell breakfast items (evem though they're no longer owned by them), Einstein Bros. has officially taken on a life of its own with more than 820 locations in 40 states. The menu is of course heavy on bagels, fresh-baked in more than 20 varieties including chocolate chip, pretzel, and six-cheese, which can be used as part of a breakfast sandwich or a filling lunch. Sandwiches include bacon, avocado, and turkey, chicken salad, and mixed veggies, as well as lighter options like asparagus, mushroom, and Swiss cheese on a “bagel thin single.” Remind me why we’re not eating all of our sandwiches on bagels?
Founded in Chicago in 1977, Potbelly’s popularity (and footprint) has rocketed in recent years. Sandwiches are toasted and served hot on regular or multigrain rolls, and come with classic fillings like meatballs, smoked ham, roast beef, chicken salad, and grilled chicken and Cheddar. There’s a choice of toppings, or you can ask for a “Skinny,” with less meat and cheese on thin-cut bread. But if you’re a first-timer, go for A Wreck: salami, roast beef, turkey, ham, and Swiss. Grab a milkshake to wash it down, snag a table near the frequent live music, and you’ll be all set. They’re also one of the few publicly traded companies on this ranking; they were listed on NASDAQ in October 2013.
The original Così was actually inspired by a café in Paris, and they’re perhaps best known for their low-key café vibe, bread baked in view of customers, and s’mores for dessert. Sandwiches are served on a freshly baked white or multigrain flatbread, in creative varieties like BBQ pulled pork and Cheddar melt, Buffalo Bleu, and Tandoori Chicken. Salads are also stellar here, made fresh to order with homemade dressings, and that flatbread is pretty versatile, also being used in pizzas.
In business since 1956, Jersey Mike’s has been around longer than any other chain on our list, and is a true American success story. In 1975 the original Point Pleasant, N.J., shop went up for sale, and a 17-year-old employee named Peter Cancro scraped together enough money to buy it. Today there are more than 750 locations nationwide and Cancro is CEO of the company. So what’s the secret? Quality. Meats and cheeses at Jersey Mike’s are sliced to order, Angus top rounds are trimmed and cooked on-premises, and bread is baked fresh in-house daily. They’re also committed to giving to charity, generally setting aside one day per month when all proceeds are donated.
To go from a small shop in Austin to an international franchise with locations in 35 states and five countries in 40 years takes commitment and a little luck, and for Schlotzsky’s that lucky break came in the form of an invention that blew away those who tried it in the early days: smoked ham, Genoa and cotto salamis, melted Cheddar, mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses, black olives, red onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard, and dressing on a toasted sourdough bun, also known as The Original. More than 25 additional varieties of sandwiches have joined it on the menu since then, including Angus beef and provolone, chicken and pesto, and a turkey bacon club, along with pizzas, salads, and soups, but it’s still that Original that’s one of the finest sandwiches you’re bound to find anywhere.
Quiznos was the first major chain to really play up the “toasted” factor, and even though it might seem like a no-brainer these days, that’s only because everyone else has jumped on the bandwagon. The second-largest sub chain in America behind Subway, with more than 4,000 U.S. locations and hundreds more around the world, it started with a single shop in Denver and a pizza oven from a local Tombstone. Today, they offer sandwiches with steak, chicken, turkey, and deli meats, in varieties like Pesto Caesar, Baja, Mesquite, Carbonara (with Alfredo sauce), and The Traditional, with turkey, ham, roast beef, Cheddar, olives, lettuce, tomato, onions, and ranch. Breads include white, wheat, rosemary Parmesan, jalapeño Cheddar, or flatbread, and they’ll also not toast it for you if you ask nicely.
With about 200 units opening every year for the past few years, Jimmy John’s, founded in an Illinois garage in 1983 by Jimmy John Liautaud, is on a path to world domination, and that’s fine by us. Bread is baked in-house daily and served fresh, and ingredients are as high-quality as possible: “The turkey is real turkey, the roast beef is real roast beef — no additives, no vegetable-based fillers, no fake stuff,” the website claims. Sandwiches are composed with an eye toward balance, but if you want to go big, go for the J.J. Gargantuan: Genoa salami, ham, capicola, roast beef, turkey, provolone, onions, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and homemade Italian dressing on a French bun. Now that’s a sandwich.
Subway may very well be the reigning king of fast-food style sandwich chains, with 40,445 locations in 103 countries as of October 2013, but that wasn’t enough to make it to number on our list. Most people smell Subway before they see it, a result of the bread baking, and its backlit sign and fluorescent lighting is instantly recognizable the world over. Founded by two friends in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1965, the chain exploded out of the gate and today has more locations than even McDonald’s. They change with the times (rolling out flatbreads, breakfast, chopped salads, and even personal pizzas), but at its core it’s all about the subs, made with expert precision. Like all fast-food brands, there’s something almost comforting about the familiar sight of a Subway: you know exactly what you’re going to get, and it’ll taste just like it always has.
With 46 percent of respondents voting for Panera Bread as one of their favorites, the fast-casual chain was the runaway winner, with more than 150 more votes than number two on our list. Panera, originally called the St. Louis Bread Company, was a spin-off of Au Bon Pain, but was such a success that Au Bon Pain sold itself out and renamed itself Panera Bread. There are more than 1,700 "Bakery-Cafes" in 44 states, and 20 facilities delivering fresh dough to each location daily so it can be baked on-premises. The first chain to voluntarily post calorie counts on its menus and one of the nation’s largest providers of free Wi-Fi, Panera has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to dining trends. They offer comfortable seating, a wide menu that’s constantly being updated with seasonal specials, and breakfast items, salads, pasta, soups, and pastries as well as expertly prepared sandwiches that can be customized to order. Not only does Panera have legions of fans, many are nothing short of obsessed with it. So congratulations on being America’s best chain sandwich shop, Panera, and keep up the good work!