Melty, messy, and MEATY, these Meatball Subs are a sandwich recipe built to satisfy.
Meatball Subs are a favorite around here. And it’s no secret why: They’re straight up da-loy-scious!
If a sandwich recipe calls for leftover meatloaf or meatballs, that's reason enough for me to make the thing in the first place. My philosophy is that the cooked meatball by itself is just one stop on the journey to ultimately becoming a meatball sub; (the highest form a meatball can aspire to).
I have a Pavlovian response to all things involving meatballs or meatloaf(s); a “Meatlovian response” if you will. TM GroundBeefRecipes.com 2022.
Why You Are Going To Love Meatball Subs
These Meatball Subs are perfect because they combine great complimentary flavors and textures into a semi-portable sandwich (though bring a paper towel). They are THE way to use up leftover meatballs, but they are also super simple to make with frozen meatballs and jarred sauce if you need a shortcut.
No other sandwich (besides maybe certain burger recipes) give you that hot, saucy, sink-your-teeth-in sensation that your inner carnivore craves while simultaneously delivering melty cheese on a toasted bun. Also, caramelized onions.
It’s a magical merger of meat, sauce, and toppings that fits right into your game-day meal plans.
We'll warn you up front. This recipe is a labor of love if you make the sauce, meatballs, and caramelized onions from scratch. It's also very worth it!
And we're also never going to judge if you want to take a short cut. You can whip up a darn good meatball sub using store bought sauce and meatballs!
Key Ingredients for Meatball Subs
- Meatballs - Italian meatballs are our go-to, but use whatever leftover meatballs you have. You can use frozen meatballs in a pinch, but if you need a shortcut recipe, we recommend our Air Fryer Meatballs. If you need more kick, our Spicy Chipotle Meatballs are for you. Also, our Gluten Free Meatballs make great subs on a gluten free sub bun!
- Sauce - Our 5-star Spaghetti Sauce is just right for this recipe, but for a quick meal, just use your favorite jar of store-bought tomato sauce. (We like Prego Garlic & Herb).
- Sub Buns - Nothing toasts quite like a fresh Italian sub bun, so try to find some at your local bakery.
- Cheese - Use as much shredded smoked Gruyere cheese as you can handle. Provolone or Monterey Jack is also very good for melting on these subs.Onion - The sweet soft slow-sauteed kind. Tangy flavor comes from the sauce in this recipe, so caramelized onions are perfect here just for sweetness and texture.
How to Make Meatball Subs
- Prep your sauce. If you’re using leftover or jarred sauce, simply heat it up in the microwave or bring it to a simmer in a sauce pan and skip ahead. Otherwise, to make a sauce from scratch:
- Saute vegetables. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil to medium heat and coat the carrots and onion. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 10-15 minutes.
- Add garlic, tomatoes, and seasonings. Remove lid, add garlic, increase heat to medium and cook until fragrant (about 1 minute). Add tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, basil, red pepper flakes, one Tablespoon of sugar, and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper.
- Simmer. Bring sauce to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Prep your meatballs. If you’re using leftovers or frozen meatballs, heat them up in the oven or air fryer and skip ahead. Otherwise, to make them from scratch:
- Stir together seasonings. In a large mixing bowl whisk together ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, and your seasonings (salt, parsley, pepper, oregano, and garlic)
- Make a panade (torn bread and milk mixture that is soaked until it turns to paste).
- Combine with meat. Use your hands to gently stir all ingredients and panade into the ground beef until combined.
- Form mixture into balls (with hands or a scoop).
- Cook. Coat each meatball with flour and pan fry in olive oil 2-3 minutes per side on med-high heat. Alternatively, you can cook them in the oven on a foil or parchment lined baking sheet at 375 for 20-25 minutes, or until the meatballs temp reaches 165 degrees on a meat thermometer.
- Combine. Add the meatballs to the warm sauce and keep warm.
- Caramelize onions. In a large non-stick skillet, heat olive oil to medium heat. Add a sliced onion and salt, reduce heat to low and cook until soft, tender, and sweet. It will take 20-30 minutes. We did a full rundown on caramelized onions in this post for Mushroom and Swiss Burgers if you want some additional visuals.
- Toast buns. Slice and toast your sub buns in the broiler or toaster oven.
- Assemble. Layer meatballs, sauce, onions, and shredded cheese on the sliced bottom bun, and broil everything again until the cheese is melted. Top with the top sub bun and Enjoy!
Tips & FAQs
- Using leftover or store bought ingredients, you can make these meatball subs in about 30-45 minutes (just the time it takes to caramelize the onions and assemble and toast everything). If you make homemade meatballs and sauce then this recipe will take about double that (1-1.5 hour) but we think it’s worth the extra time.
- Frozen store bought meatballs can be pretty bland sometimes. A short simmer on low heat IN the sauce can really help to give a boring meatball some life.
- Meatballs roll. Slicing them in half when you are assembling the sub can prevent a disaster a la the old children's song… On top of spaghetti!!!
- If you find yourself needing more fresh veggie crunch to this sandwich, a sprinkle of shredded iceberg lettuce (after toasting) does the trick.
- These Meatball Subs are a great tailgating or half-time snack. Make sure you’re ready for game day by having any homemade meatballs and sauce made ahead and stored in the freezer to save time.
Make Ahead and Freezer Instructions:
The sauce, meatballs, and onions can all be cooked ahead of time and stored in the fridge. They'll keep for 5 days.
The meatballs also freeze well. See our guide to freezing meatballs for all the tips and tricks on making meatballs ahead of time.
The sauce can be frozen in freezer safe zip lock bags and thawed in the fridge overnight before using.
For the Sauce:
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion (diced)
- 3 medium carrots (peeled and diced)
- 3 cloves garlic (minced)
- 2 cans crushed or whole tomatoes 28oz cans (including the juice)
- 4 Tablespoons fresh basil (chopped)
- 4 Tablespoons fresh parsley (chopped)
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 1-3 Tablespoons sugar (to taste)
- Salt and pepper ( to taste)
For the Meatballs:
- 1 cup milk
- 4-5 slices fresh bread (Italian or country white, crusts removed)
- 2 lbs. ground beef
- 1 lb. Italian sausage
- ⅓ cup ricotta cheese
- ⅓ cup Parmesan cheese (grated)
- 3 eggs
- 3 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 1 ½ Tablespoons fresh parsley (chopped)
- 3 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
- 4 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 package sub buns
- 1 red onion
- 2 cups Gruyere cheese (shredded)
Prep your sauce.
- If you’re using leftover or jarred sauce, simply heat it up in the microwave or bring it to a simmer in a sauce pan and skip ahead. Otherwise, to make a sauce from scratch:
- In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat olive oil to medium heat. Add the carrots and onions and toss to coat with oil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until veggies are softened.
- Remove lid, add garlic, increase heat to medium high and cook until fragrant (about 1 minute). Add tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, basil, red pepper flakes, one Tablespoon of sugar, and a generous sprinkle of salt and pepper.
- Bring sauce to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. If you prefer a smoother (less chunky) sauce, use an immersion blender to puree the sauce to desired texture.
Prep your meatballs.
- If you’re using leftovers or frozen meatballs, heat them up in the oven air fryer and skip ahead. Otherwise, to make them from scratch:
- Make a panade by tearing bread into small pieces and pour the milk over top. Allow it to soak for several minutes in a large bowl. The texture should be like a very thick, wet paste. If the mixture is too loose, add a few more bread pieces.
- In a large mixing bowl whisk together ricotta, Parmesan, eggs, and your seasonings (salt, parsley, pepper, oregano, and garlic).
- Add the panade and ground beef to the mixing bowl. Use your hands to gently stir all ingredients into the ground beef until combined.
- Form mixture into balls (with hands or a 2 tablespoon cookie scoop).
- Coat each meatball with flour and pan fry in olive oil 2-3 minutes per side on med-high heat. (Alternatively you can cook them in the oven on a foil or parchment lined baking sheet at 375 for 20-25 minutes, or until the meatballs internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F on a meat thermometer.)
- Once meatballs are cooked, place into a saucepan and low simmer in the prepared sauce.
- In a large non-stick skillet, heat olive oil to medium heat. Add sliced onion and salt, reduce heat to low and cook until soft, tender, and sweet, stirring occasionally. (it will take 20-30 minutes)
- Slice and toast your sub buns in the broiler or toaster oven.
- Layer meatballs, sauce, onions, and shredded cheese on the sliced bottom bun, and broil everything again until the cheese is melted. Top with the top sub bun and Enjoy!
Craving More Italian Classics?
If pasta, meat and marinara is the trio you need, look no further than these favorites:
- Our Cheesy Baked Spaghetti Casserole
- Easy Cheesy Company Casserole
- Mom's Cottage Cheese Lasagna
- One Pot Lasagna Soup
and for a perfect side dish, look no further than our Creamy Caesar Salad.