1950s Origins of Perth’s Conti Roll

The continental roll, or “Conti roll”, is a Perth institution and consists of mixed continental meats (typically mortadella, coppa and salami), cheese and Italian-style pickled vegetables layered into a crusty roll. While not the only outlets, the two Perth delis most famously associated with the continental roll are  Di Chiera Brothers and The Re Store. While The Re Store opened in 1936, it seems that the continental roll tradition may have evolved after Giuseppe and Antonio Di Chiera opened their store in 1957.

The trouble with the timeline format is that not every dish has a definite birth date. We can’t be certain when Perth’s Italian delis started putting filled rolls together for their customers, or when they were first called continental rolls.  But, like Adelaide’s double-cut rolls, they do seem to be a regional specialty – in name, if not in character. And the best guess is that they emerged as a “thing” sometime in the 1950s.

While there had been a few Italian immigrants from the earliest days of colonial settlement in Western Australia, certain periods of the state’s history saw a surge in numbers. The Western Australian gold rushes in the 1880s and 1890s attracted fortune-seekers from all over the world, including Italy.  The count was boosted when the USA imposed quotas on immigration from Italy in 1921 and the number of Italians in Australia trebled between that year and 1933.

The founder of The Re Store was the son of a Sicilian immigrant. He opened his grocery store in 1936, selling specialty goods like olive oil, Italian salumi and wines, and imported pasta. Although he would almost certainly have been selling all the makings of the continental roll, it’s unclear whether customers could buy a ready-made version. And they certainly wouldn’t have referred to it by that name. The family now suggests that the filled roll, originally known by their Italian customers as a panino italiano, evolved in the 1950s.

The Di Chiera brothers were part of a new wave of Italian immigrants who arrived after World War II.  It seems they began offering filled rolls as a way of using up the left-over ends of salami and other processed meats.  At some point, their non-Italian customers began to call the sandwich a continental roll – and the name has persisted. Somehow its nomenclature has remained regional, although the ingredients are equally available in continental delicatessens across the nation.

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