"Well, poor fella. I took a loaf of Italian bread and cut it in half and stuck in lots of meat and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and sliced onions and roast peppers and pickles and olives and then made up a little sauce so it wouldn't be dry," she said.
Soon, she was making those sandwiches every day for the policeman, his buddies, the captain and a whole lot more. In fact, sandwich makers at Emil's were soon turning out 1,000 hoagies a day for workers at the Naval Shipyard during World War II.
Her claim - made on a sign above the entrance to the restaurant at Broad and Moore and passed along by Quinn in The Inquirer's Today magazine - was immediately challenged by reader C. J. Cancelmo of Havertown, who called Quinn's article "10 percent true and 90 percent fiction."
"These sandwiches were being made and eaten by many of the Italian- American shipyard workers at the Hog Island shipyard during the first World War, long before Antoinette Iannelli came to Philadelphia or made a sandwich of any kind," he said.
That may be, but Mrs. Iannelli's son, Emil, said she believed she made Philadelphia's first. It was modeled on sandwiches she saw in Italy. "She did not say she invented it," Iannelli said. "She said she originated it in Philadelphia."
Whether Emil's was the "Home of the Original Hoagie," like the sign says, it was a very popular spot for local diners who appreciated Mrs. Iannelli's special soups and sandwiches.
One of the more popular items over the years was Mrs. Iannelli's grilled eggplant Parmesan sandwich - mozzarella, eggplant and tomato on a roll and grilled in butter - that she served on Fridays.
"They would make them up 300 at a time and sell out in two hours," her son said.
"It's ironic that we won't be making them this Friday," said cook Anna Teti, who has worked at Emil's for 32 years. It would have been Mrs. Iannelli's 81st birthday, but Emil's will be closed for her funeral, she said.
Mrs. Iannelli was born in Elkhorn, W. Va. She and her husband, Emilio, came to Philadephia and opened a small grocery store at Mifflin and Passyunk Streets in the late 1930s with money borrowed from an insurance policy.
It was there, she told Quinn, that she created Philly's first hoagie - which she called a submarine because it looked like one.
In 1945, she and her husband, who went back to his native Italy in 1960 and died there in 1983, bought the restaurant/deli on Broad Street. And there she stayed until last December, when her health forced her to retire. She was a tiny woman - she stood only about 4-feet-8 - but her stamina was immense.
Customers could find the brown-eyed woman, her black hair piled into a familiar bun, behind the long counter six days a week, and up to 15 hours a day, ready to serve breakfast, lunch or dinner.
But Emil's was more than a restaurant to Mrs. Iannelli, who lived in an apartment above it and so was never more than seconds away.
"The store was like her living room," her son said. "People loved her. She listened to them. She regarded her customers as her family."
"This was her whole life," said Teti. "She would not close on a Saturday
because she didn't want to be out of here for more than one day.
"Here it's like a family," she went on. "The same customers every time, we know everybody. She was more like a mother or grandmother."
It was also a special place to work, Teti said.
She said she quit once for a time, and then returned for six months, to help pay for her son's wedding. "That was 25 years ago, and I'm still working," Teti said.
Mrs. Iannelli is survived by two sons, Emil L. and Ernest; two daughters, Edda McDonnell and Lucille Francesco; a brother, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A viewing will be held from 7 to 9:30 p.m. tomorrow at Pennsylvania Burial Co., 1327 S. Broad St. A Mass of Christian Burial will be said at 9:30 a.m. Friday at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, 17th and Morris Streets.
Burial will be at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple Township.