Juicy meatballs, melty cheese and savoury Italian-seasoned tomato sauce layered inside soft, buttery and sweet Hawaiian rolls and topped with herb butter. Like mini meatball subs, these oven-baked, pull-apart Hawaiian roll meatball sliders make perfect party sandwiches or an easy weeknight dinner.
What are Hawaiian Rolls?
Hawaiian rolls are a type of enriched bread inspired by Portuguese sweet bread and popularized in Hawaii in the mid 20th century. They’re made with eggs, butter and sweetened with pineapple juice and sugar. They’re soft and fluffy, sweet and rich, and pair well with salty meats and cheeses, and the umami and slight tang of Italian-seasoned tomato sauce, as in these meatball sliders. While their interior texture is soft, the outsides crisp up in the oven - especially after a brush with herb butter.
You can make Hawaiian rolls yourself at home - the rolls pictured here are homemade - though baking your own rolls will turn this from an easy weeknight meal to more of a project. Otherwise, King’s brand Hawaiian rolls are widely available in grocery stores. If you can’t find store-bought Hawaiian rolls and don’t want to make them yourself, look for another dinner roll made with enriched bread, like brioche. Regular soft dinner rolls will work, though they won’t be as sweet and rich.
Make it Easier (Or Make it a Project)
These meatball sliders are intended to be a relatively quick and easy recipe you can make on a weeknight, but you can adjust how easy or time-consuming you want the recipe to be by deciding when to take short-cuts and when to make the recipe components from scratch. ch
Looking for more sandwich ideas? Try these beer battered fish burgers with tomato relish and tahini sauce, spicy jerk chicken sandwiches, leftover roast beef and cranberry sandwiches, or pulled pork bus with kohlrabi slaw.
Use Ready-Made Meatballs
Whenever I make meatballs I like to double the recipe and freeze half for another meal. If you’ve done the same, or otherwise like to keep a well-stocked freezer, using your own homemade frozen meatballs is a great shortcut for these meatball sliders.
Store-bought, ready-made, meatballs are another time-saving, if not money-saving, option. If going with store-bought:
- Look for larger meatballs made with Italian seasonings
- Opt for pre-shaped raw meatballs near the ground meats in the meat section of your grocery store over frozen meatballs, if you can find them.
- For the best results when cooking store-bought frozen meatballs, follow the package directions.
To make these sliders using frozen meatballs, skip ahead to step 3 and add the frozen meatballs directly to the sauce and simmer over low heat, covered, till the meatballs are cooked all the way through and a meat thermometer inserted into the center of each ball reaches at least 165F. This should take about 20-30 minutes, though the exact time will depend on the size of your meatballs.
Use Store-Bought Hawaiian Rolls
The biggest time saver with this recipe is picking up your Hawaiian rolls at a grocery store or bakery rather than making them from scratch.
If you enjoy bread baking, or would like to give homemade Hawaiian rolls a try, the good news is they are a pretty easy bread to bake and, unlike a lot of breads, you don’t have to start the dough a day or two in advance.
I use this recipe from King Arthur Baking for my homemade Hawaiian rolls, though I have made a few changes to the recipe and technique.
Use a Jar of Marinara Sauce
This recipe as written does involve making a sort-of marinara sauce from scratch, but it’s so easy - really just crushed tomatoes, garlic and dried spices - it doesn’t really feel like cooking from scratch.
If you’re really short on time, you can skip this step and use a jar of marinara sauce (or, your own homemade canned tomato sauce) instead. You will still need to heat it up in a saucepan before assembling the sliders, especially if you plan to cook your meatballs in it.
You will need about 3 cups of jarred or canned sauce to replicate the recipe below, which makes very saucy sliders. If you’d like your sliders less messy and on the drier side, use 1.5-2 cups of sauce instead.
Like any meatball sandwich, these sliders are saucy. One key to making them absolutely delicious is preventing the bread from becoming soggy before you have a chance to eat them. That means toasting the buns, layering the sandwiches so the cheese separates the sauce from the bread and, most importantly, serving them immediately after they come out of the oven.
If serving these meatball sliders as a main, keep the sides easy. Try: quick pan-fried collard greens, potato salad with spring onions, Korean cucumber salad or honey sriracha brussels sprouts.
For this reason, I would not recommend assembling the sliders too far in advance. However, some of the recipe components can be prepared in advance to have on hand for assembling just before you intend to serve them:
- The meatballs can be made in advance and either stored in the refrigerator raw up to a day ahead, cooked in the sauce and stored in the sauce in the refrigerator, or frozen, with or without the sauce. However you do it, the meatballs and sauce will need to be heated through before assembling the sliders.
- The herb butter can be prepared in advance and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. Either bring it up to room temperature before assembling the sliders or heat it for a few seconds in the microwave. Do not pour or brush it over the sliders until just before you are ready to put them in the oven.
If you really want to try assembling the sliders in advance:
- Assemble no more than 4 hours ahead of time.
- Toast both the tops and the bottoms of the buns.
- Assemble the sandwiches making sure to layer the cheese between the sauce and the bread.
- Cover the dish tightly with foil and refrigerate till ready to use.
- Since your made-ahead sliders will be cold from the fridge, they will need more time to heat through, covered, in the oven.
Leftovers, Storing & Freezing
- These sliders are best eaten immediately after they come out of the oven, but any leftovers can be stored tightly wrapped in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two days.
- I would not recommend freezing leftover Hawaiian roll sliders.
- The best way to reheat leftover sliders is in the oven. Wrap the sliders you want to reheat in foil and transfer to a 350F oven. Either sit the foil packets directly on the oven racks or put them on a baking sheet. Heat until warmed through, about 20-30 minutes.
- If you’d like to crisp up the Hawaiian buns, open the foil and continue to heat for 5-10 more minutes after the sliders heat through or transfer the sandwiches to a sheet pan for a few minutes to crisp up both the tops and bottoms.
- You can also reheat leftover sliders in the microwave. It’s much faster, but won’t result in an ideal texture. The sliders will be somewhat soft and soggy. The oven is worth the extra few minutes wait.
Hawaiian Roll Meatball Sliders Recipe
Serves 6 as main (12 as party food or appetizer)
For the Meatballs & Marinara Sauce:
- ½ pound ground beef
- ½ pound Italian sausage meat, removed from casings (or ground pork)
- ½ cup panko crumbs
- ⅓ cup whole milk
- ⅔ cup parmesan cheese, grated and divided
- 1 tablespoons dried parsley
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon dried rosemary
- ½ teaspoon table salt
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more for sauce
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- 2 eggs
- 4 garlic cloves, minced and divided
- 2 tablespoons olive or neutral oil
- 1 (28oz) can crushed tomatoes
For the Sliders:
- 12 Hawaiian rolls (store-bought or homemade)
- 3 cups mozzarella cheese, grated
- ¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
- A few pinches of salt, pepper, dried parsley and basil
Prepare & Cook the Meatballs & Sauce:
- Heat the oven to 425F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Add the beef, sausage meat or pork, panko crumbs, milk, half the parmesan, dried herbs and spices, eggs and half of the garlic to a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon, or your hands, mix the ingredients together until well combined. Using a set of measuring spoons, divide the meatball mixture into 12 portions - about 2 ½ tablespoons of mixture for each meatball - and shape each portion into a meatball.
- Bake the meatballs until they reach at least 165F, about 15-20 minutes, flipping over half way through. When the meatballs have 5 minutes to go, add the olive oil to the bottom of a heavy bottomed pot, dutch oven or saucepan set over medium heat. Add the remaining garlic to the oil and cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add the can of crushed tomatoes and a pinch of red pepper flakes.
- When the meatballs come out of the oven, add them to the sauce and toss to coat. Lower the heat and let the meatballs simmer in the sauce for about 5 minutes.
Assemble & bake the sliders:
- Lower the oven temperature to 350F. With a large serrated knife, slice the rolls in half so you have a single “slab” of roll bottoms and a single “slab” of roll tops, keeping the individual rolls connected to each other. Transfer the bottom “slab” to the baking dish, cut side up, and sprinkle 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese evenly over top. Bake until the cheese melts and the rolls begin to toast, about 5 minutes.
- Mix the softened butter together with a pinch of salt, pepper, dried parsley and basil. Set aside.
- Remove the roll bottoms from the oven and assemble the sandwiches by layering the remaining ingredients: half the sauce, then the meatballs, then the other half of the sauce, then the remaining mozzarella cheese, then the roll tops. Brush the herb butter evenly over the rolls. Then sprinkle with the remaining parmesan cheese. Cover the top of the dish tightly with foil.
- Transfer the rolls to the oven and bake, covered, until the cheese melts, 12-15 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake, uncovered, for another 5-10 minutes until the tops of the buns are golden and crisp. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.