If you're not from Maine, the name alone will throw you into a tizzy. An Italian Sandwich (aka, a Real Italian) is a specific kind of sandwich, made by Amato's . . .
The history itself is interesting: In 1902, Giovanni Amato began selling fresh baked rolls filled with meats and vegetables, drizzled with olive oil, etc, to dock workers in Portland Maine (my birthplace). Click on this link for the full story.
One of my earliest Portland memories is having 'the house the Italian sandwiches built' pointed out -- at first, by parents, uncles, or grandparents, but later, we kids always spotted it ourselves and called it out, as famous a landmark to us as the Statue of Liberty might be to New York kids. As a very young child, I had odd images in my head of rolls and tomatoes out there wielding hammers, building a house. Later I understood that the poor Italian immigrants who started selling Italian sandwiches for pennies turned their business into an empire, which built this house. The house was, and still is, gorgeous. (I've looked and looked, but can't find a picture of it online. I'm going to ask my mother to snap one and send it, next time she's in the area.)
I grew up on Italians, and still crave them. They were always our Sunday evening supper. I was the one who got to go into Amato's on India Street and stand with Dad in the line, listening as he called out the inevitable "six Italians, one with onions 5 without, all with salt-peppah-and-oil." I loved watching the men behind the counter slice the veggies so fast that their hands were a blur, then roll the sandwiches up into the waxed paper and snap a rubber band around each one (today it's a piece of tape), slide them into a bag, and hand it over to me while Dad paid the $1.50 for the 6 sandwiches. Sometimes he'd add in a big bag of Humpty Dumpty potato chips. We'd drive home, waiting patiently for the sandwiches, the aroma filling the car (and we actually passed Humpty Dumpty on the way home). Usually a little bit of olive oil leaked out of the waxed paper and made dark spots on the brown paper bag I held on my lap, but that just made my mouth water all the more. Although it was less than a ten-minute ride home, it seemed to take forever.
Anyway, it was a Sunday night tradition. Mom got a night out of the kitchen, and it had all the food groups, so even a 1960's mother could feed them to her brood guilt-free. We always watched The Wonderful World of Disney while eating them, which was the only time we ever ate in front of a television set.
Many years later, my daughter and I lived just around the corner from the 'house the Italian sandwiches built,' and I told her the story. I also made sure she ate lots of Real Italians.
Today, the bread is the only thing I have to change (although you really can't get true Amato's bread outside of Maine anyway), and of course I don't eat cheese. So I buy a GF par-baked roll, finish baking it, slice it lengthwise, fill it with all the best things, either do it cheese-free or buy a soya-cheese, and make the closest thing to a Real Italian.
It's simple: ham, provolone (for most people -- I have to substitute), tomatoes, green peppers, a pickle, some kalamata olives, make yours with or without onions, then drizzle with olive oil, add a bit of salt and pepper, and you've got yourself a Real Italian.
The pictures on Amato's website are better than mine, so do have a gander, and read the rest of the history while your there.
Other alternatives include using cooked and cooled pasta in place of the bread, thus making a salad. Do use olive oil, though, to keep it exactly the same otherwise.