I ate the same meal at America's three largest sub chains to see which shop does fresh sandwiches best, and the differences were stark

Irene at jimmy john's with sandwichIrene Jiang / Business Insider

  • All sub sandwiches are equal in a way, but some are better than others.
  • The top three sub sandwich chains in America are Subway, Jimmy John's, and Jersey Mikes in term of sales, according to Nation's Restaurant News.
  • I went to all three sandwich chains and ordered the same meal at each one in order to see how they compared.
  • While Jersey Mike's put up a good fight, Jimmy John's ultimately won me over with its speedy, friendly service and all-around delicious food.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A sub by any other name - hero, hoagie, grinder - is just as delicious.

What makes a sub from Subway different from one from Jimmy John's? And what makes those different from a Jersey Mike's sub? That's what I want to find out.

Read more: I ate the cheapest cheeseburgers from McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King. Wendy's was best by a slice.

Since every day is sub day if you want it to be, I decided to have three sub days: one at Subway, one at Jimmy John's, and one at Jersey Mike's. I ordered the same meal at each place: an Italian-style sub sandwich with chips, a cookie, and a drink.

My goal: to find out how these hoagie hawkers stack up.

Two feet of bread, meat, cheese, and lettuce later, I had my answer.

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I went to the Subway in Manhattan's Financial District just steps from the office.

I went to the Subway in Manhattan's Financial District just steps from the office.

It was a narrow, grimly-lit space with sky-high ceilings. It'd been a few years since I'd been to a Subway, so I kind of forgot how to order. Subway doesn't really have instructions. They've been around for long enough that they just sort of assume that you know how to order at Subway.

It was a narrow, grimly-lit space with sky-high ceilings. It'd been a few years since I'd been to a Subway, so I kind of forgot how to order. Subway doesn't really have instructions. They've been around for long enough that they just sort of assume that you know how to order at Subway.

I went to Jimmy John's in Jersey City, New Jersey at around 11 a.m., right after it opened for the day.

I went to Jimmy John's in Jersey City, New Jersey at around 11 a.m., right after it opened for the day.

Compared to Subway, Jimmy John's had cozy digs. There were only two guys behind the counter and only two seats in the shop. Although the space was small, it was clean, brightly lit, and welcoming.

Compared to Subway, Jimmy John's had cozy digs. There were only two guys behind the counter and only two seats in the shop. Although the space was small, it was clean, brightly lit, and welcoming.

The store manager explained to me proudly that Jimmy John's uses local produce and all-natural deli meats. He was very proud of the fact that they used Hellman's Mayonnaise, and by the looks of the shelves in the kitchen, they used a lot of it.

The store manager explained to me proudly that Jimmy John's uses local produce and all-natural deli meats. He was very proud of the fact that they used Hellman's Mayonnaise, and by the looks of the shelves in the kitchen, they used a lot of it.

Jersey Mike's had just opened a location in Hoboken, New Jersey. A line extended out the door.

Jersey Mike's had just opened a location in Hoboken, New Jersey. A line extended out the door.

Inside, it was packed, noisy, and a little confusing. But the staff seemed to know what they were doing.

Inside, it was packed, noisy, and a little confusing. But the staff seemed to know what they were doing.

At Subway, I asked my sandwich artist if I could take pictures, then I ordered a six-inch Subway club sandwich on nine-grain honey oat bread.

At Subway, I asked my sandwich artist if I could take pictures, then I ordered a six-inch Subway club sandwich on nine-grain honey oat bread.

I was pretty disappointed by the meager two slices of turkey and beef each. I felt like I was being rushed through the line without having time to decide what to put on my sandwich.

I was pretty disappointed by the meager two slices of turkey and beef each. I felt like I was being rushed through the line without having time to decide what to put on my sandwich.

Subway is the only sandwich shop out of the three that offers to toast your sandwich. I got mine toasted. But as my sandwich was toasting, I was yelled at to stop taking pictures and told to leave the store.

Subway is the only sandwich shop out of the three that offers to toast your sandwich. I got mine toasted. But as my sandwich was toasting, I was yelled at to stop taking pictures and told to leave the store.

I'd obtained consent from my sandwich artist, but fair enough. My sandwich was already in the oven, so eventually, the manager decided I could finish ordering my meal. Still, this interaction left a bad taste in my mouth as I took my meal to a table in the back.

I'd obtained consent from my sandwich artist, but fair enough. My sandwich was already in the oven, so eventually, the manager decided I could finish ordering my meal. Still, this interaction left a bad taste in my mouth as I took my meal to a table in the back.

At Jimmy John's, I ordered an eight-inch Italian Night Club on nine-grain bread. There isn't as much of an opportunity to customize, but sometimes I appreciate having my food choices made for me.

At Jimmy John's, I ordered an eight-inch Italian Night Club on nine-grain bread. There isn't as much of an opportunity to customize, but sometimes I appreciate having my food choices made for me.

The manager made my sandwich at breakneck speed, first slicing fresh bread, then stacking meats and toppings onto a layer of mayo with remarkable accuracy.

The manager made my sandwich at breakneck speed, first slicing fresh bread, then stacking meats and toppings onto a layer of mayo with remarkable accuracy.

The manager told me that the bread used for sandwiches is fresh-baked and has been sitting for no longer than 4 hours. Leftover bread is sold the next day for $.49 a baguette.

The manager told me that the bread used for sandwiches is fresh-baked and has been sitting for no longer than 4 hours. Leftover bread is sold the next day for $.49 a baguette.

Read more: I ate chicken wings from 5 major chains, and a little-known newcomer beat out all the classics

At Jersey Mike's, I ordered a Number 6: a beef provolone sandwich Mike's way with relish and white bread.

At Jersey Mike's, I ordered a Number 6: a beef provolone sandwich Mike's way with relish and white bread.

Each person on the sandwich line had one specific job. There was a guy whose sole job was to slice and arrange deli meats, then there was lettuce, tomato, and vinegar guy, and then there was a cut and wrap guy.

Each person on the sandwich line had one specific job. There was a guy whose sole job was to slice and arrange deli meats, then there was lettuce, tomato, and vinegar guy, and then there was a cut and wrap guy.

The toppings were pretty much like the ones at Jimmy John's: lettuce, tomato, and a generous squirt of vinegar.

The toppings were pretty much like the ones at Jimmy John's: lettuce, tomato, and a generous squirt of vinegar.

My sandwich moved down the line with stunning efficiency, yet everyone was friendly. It was fast but I didn't feel rushed at all.

My sandwich moved down the line with stunning efficiency, yet everyone was friendly. It was fast but I didn't feel rushed at all.

My meal at Subway consisted of a six-inch sub, a bag of chips, a macadamia cookie, and a ridiculously huge soft drink. It ran me $11.07 plus tax.

My meal at Subway consisted of a six-inch sub, a bag of chips, a macadamia cookie, and a ridiculously huge soft drink. It ran me $11.07 plus tax.

This was by far the smallest, flattest sandwich of the bunch. The people making it had seemed reluctant to put stuff on it, so it turned out like this.

This was by far the smallest, flattest sandwich of the bunch. The people making it had seemed reluctant to put stuff on it, so it turned out like this.

My sandwich artists seemed to have been inspired by Jackson Pollock. I'd asked for light mayo as a topping, so a sandwich artist squeezed a terrifying glob onto one side of the sandwich.

My sandwich artists seemed to have been inspired by Jackson Pollock. I'd asked for light mayo as a topping, so a sandwich artist squeezed a terrifying glob onto one side of the sandwich.

It tasted better than I expected even though it was a relatively flat sandwich and the ingredients weren't as fresh or high-quality as I'd like.

It tasted better than I expected even though it was a relatively flat sandwich and the ingredients weren't as fresh or high-quality as I'd like.

But doused in mayo and mustard, it was acceptable, if not especially filling.

But doused in mayo and mustard, it was acceptable, if not especially filling.

My meal at Jimmy John's consisted of an eight-inch sub sandwich, a pickle, a bag of salt and vinegar chips, and a chocolate chunk cookie — all Jimmy John's brand. It cost me $15.41 plus tax.

My meal at Jimmy John's consisted of an eight-inch sub sandwich, a pickle, a bag of salt and vinegar chips, and a chocolate chunk cookie — all Jimmy John's brand. It cost me $15.41 plus tax.

My Italian Night Club was significantly more substantial than my Subway Club had been. It was heavy. It had weight. It didn't fall apart at a poke of the finger.

My Italian Night Club was significantly more substantial than my Subway Club had been. It was heavy. It had weight. It didn't fall apart at a poke of the finger.

Holy mother of hoagies, this sandwich was delicious. The bread was slightly crusty, the lettuce crunchy, and the meat thinly sliced and sublimely soft.

Holy mother of hoagies, this sandwich was delicious. The bread was slightly crusty, the lettuce crunchy, and the meat thinly sliced and sublimely soft.

Everything in the sandwich tasted fresh. Lettuce was plentiful, which I loved. But what really made the sandwich was its signature coat of Hellman's mayo.

Everything in the sandwich tasted fresh. Lettuce was plentiful, which I loved. But what really made the sandwich was its signature coat of Hellman's mayo.

I'd gone to Jimmy John's in high school a few times, but I don't remember its meats being that high quality. However, the salami in my sandwich was a standout.

I'd gone to Jimmy John's in high school a few times, but I don't remember its meats being that high quality. However, the salami in my sandwich was a standout.

Read more: I tried chicken sandwiches from 8 major chains, and Popeyes' was a major standout for several reasons

At Jersey Mike's, my meal consisted of a Number 6 beef with provolone sandwich, Mike's style, sour cream and onion chips, and a house-brand stack of cookies. The whole meal ran $12.93.

At Jersey Mike's, my meal consisted of a Number 6 beef with provolone sandwich, Mike's style, sour cream and onion chips, and a house-brand stack of cookies. The whole meal ran $12.93.

Jersey Mike's makes a Goliath grinder, a perfectly respectable meat-on-bread monstrosity.

Jersey Mike's makes a Goliath grinder, a perfectly respectable meat-on-bread monstrosity.

It was wet on the bottom from the vinegar, but I was impressed by the dappled waves of rare roast beef speckled with red flecks of relish.

It was wet on the bottom from the vinegar, but I was impressed by the dappled waves of rare roast beef speckled with red flecks of relish.

Jersey Mike's sandwich was definitely the most visually appealing of them all. The ingredients inside were top-quality, although I didn't like the overall flavor of it quite as much as I liked the flavor of Jimmy John's Italian Night Club.

Jersey Mike's sandwich was definitely the most visually appealing of them all. The ingredients inside were top-quality, although I didn't like the overall flavor of it quite as much as I liked the flavor of Jimmy John's Italian Night Club.

While the beef was incredibly tender, I found the vinegar to be overpowering and the bread to be relatively unmemorable.

While the beef was incredibly tender, I found the vinegar to be overpowering and the bread to be relatively unmemorable.

Subway offers a variety of chip choices. I chose the only Miss Vickie's flavor available because kettle chips are better than all other chips.

Subway offers a variety of chip choices. I chose the only Miss Vickie's flavor available because kettle chips are better than all other chips.

I also bought a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie at Subway, which had a half-baked texture.

I also bought a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie at Subway, which had a half-baked texture.

It was way too sweet and tasted mostly of preservatives and artificial flavorings.

It was way too sweet and tasted mostly of preservatives and artificial flavorings.

I was impressed that Jimmy John's had its own brand of kettle chips.

I was impressed that Jimmy John's had its own brand of kettle chips.

And they were pretty good! They were more salt than vinegar, but all-in-all, they were perfectly satisfactory.

And they were pretty good! They were more salt than vinegar, but all-in-all, they were perfectly satisfactory.

Jimmy John's pickle was vibrant, crunchy, and refreshing.

Jimmy John's pickle was vibrant, crunchy, and refreshing.

Jimmy John's brand triple chocolate chunk cookie had a prepackaged texture. It was stiff and seemed like it would have tasted better after ten seconds in a microwave.

Jimmy John's brand triple chocolate chunk cookie had a prepackaged texture. It was stiff and seemed like it would have tasted better after ten seconds in a microwave.

But it tasted like chocolatey, buttery goodness. I couldn't tell what all the kinds of chocolate were in the cookie, but I wasn't complaining.

But it tasted like chocolatey, buttery goodness. I couldn't tell what all the kinds of chocolate were in the cookie, but I wasn't complaining.

Jersey Mike's offers a small selection of chips to go with your meal. Again, I chose a bag of Miss Vickie's.

Jersey Mike's offers a small selection of chips to go with your meal. Again, I chose a bag of Miss Vickie's.

However, Jersey Mike's cookies are house-made. I got a stack of three sugar cookies.

However, Jersey Mike's cookies are house-made. I got a stack of three sugar cookies.

They were soft to a fault and broke apart very easily. They felt slightly undercooked, but they were pleasantly sweet and buttery.

They were soft to a fault and broke apart very easily. They felt slightly undercooked, but they were pleasantly sweet and buttery.

Jersey Mike impressed me with its fresh-sliced deli meats, remarkable efficiency, and staff friendliness. It was clear that everything in the store met a pretty high standard for quality. The sandwich itself, however, was simply too vinegary for the rest of the ingredients to get the taste bud time they deserved.

 Jersey Mike impressed me with its fresh-sliced deli meats, remarkable efficiency, and staff friendliness. It was clear that everything in the store met a pretty high standard for quality. The sandwich itself, however, was simply too vinegary for the rest of the ingredients to get the taste bud time they deserved.

All I can say about my meal at Subway is: never again. I left feeling dissatisfied and slightly sick. Despite all the good memories I have of cheap meals at the Subway in my college town, I can't imagine voluntarily going back to one now that I have other choices.

All I can say about my meal at Subway is: never again. I left feeling dissatisfied and slightly sick. Despite all the good memories I have of cheap meals at the Subway in my college town, I can't imagine voluntarily going back to one now that I have other choices.

The surprising winner of this comparison was Jimmy John's, for providing a consistently satisfying experience all-around. I could tell that the staff took pride in their work and paid close attention to detail. All my food was delicious, and getting it was easy and quick. Jimmy John's all the way.

The surprising winner of this comparison was Jimmy John's, for providing a consistently satisfying experience all-around. I could tell that the staff took pride in their work and paid close attention to detail. All my food was delicious, and getting it was easy and quick. Jimmy John's all the way.
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