Food & Drink

The Origins of the Sloppy Joe Sandwich in New Jersey

The Chatham Sandwich Shop Sloppy Joe Credits: TAP Chatham

DID YOU KNOW that according to New Jersey lore, the original sloppy joe sandwich was created in 1935 at Town Hall Deli in South Orange, NJ? And that the idea for the sandwich came from a bar called Sloppy Joe’s in Havana, Cuba?

Thomas Sweeney, a Maplewood, NJ politico at the time, was vacationing in Cuba and a frequent visitor to the bar. The bar’s proprietor would set out fixings so that his patrons could assemble a sandwich for themselves. Sweeney fell in love with the combination of ingredients, and upon his return to New Jersey asked the owners of Town Hall Deli to re-create the sandwich he had at Sloppy Joe’s bar.

The sandwiches caught on, as did the name, and remain a staple on deli menus throughout New Jersey.

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As indigenous New Jerseyans know, this sandwich is not to be confused with the hot, ground beef-and-sweet-tomato-sauce Sloppy Joe served on a bun in school cafeterias across America. It has nothing to do with Manwich or some variation of Hamburger Helper.

Our sloppy joe is a triple-decker sandwich on rye bread with sliced deli meat (typically ham, turkey, roast beef or corned beef), Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing, cut into three wedges. The original Cuban sandwich was made with ham and cow tongue, a combination that has not withstood the test of time.

Creating the sloppy joe is somewhat of an art form that requires uniformity in the layering and spreading of ingredients. Town Hall Deli uses long Pullman loaf pans to bake their own rye bread, slices the bread very thin, uses two kinds of meat, and puts a swipe of butter on the bread. They use a dry coleslaw (versus mayonnaise-based) and trim the crust off the bread, creating a more precise sloppy joe sandwich than most delis. 

Equally famous for the New Jersey sloppy joe is Millburn Deli. However in Millburn, they aren’t so sure the sloppy joe sandwich originated in Cuba. Owner Diane Fluke believes the sandwich is so-named because it’s (indisputably) messy to eat. Their sloppy joe was in contention for TV personality Adam Richman’s “Best Sandwich in America” in 2013.

Millburn Deli does not trim the crust, and they only swipe the bread with butter when requested, or when sandwiches are being delivered over-night to another part of the country, because a layer of butter helps keep the Russian dressing and coleslaw from creating a soggy sandwich. 

Both Town Hall and Millburn Delis routinely ship their sloppy joes to native Jerseyans with a craving throughout the U.S. For Town Hall, Florida retirees and California foodies are the most frequent over-night shipping recipients – they do a lot of Hollywood-related business.

For Millburn Deli, it’s Millburn High alums living in California, followed by Florida and New Mexico residents. Super Bowl Sunday is typically the busiest day of the year for sloppy joe orders at both delis.

Whether it’s being transported across state lines in a cooler riding in a car, in the overhead storage bin of a plane or train, or via professional next-day delivery service, it is heartening to know that the sloppy joe sandwich is always within reach of transplanted New Jerseyans.

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