Casapulla's Subs started in the 1950s, and family has worked there the whole time
When it comes to classic Delaware foods, an Italian sub or cheesesteak from Casapulla's is usually at the top of the list.
There are branches of the family-run sub shops now in Rehoboth Beach, Glasgow, north Wilmington and the Newark area, but the base of the operation always has been the flagship store in Elsmere, a pillar of the community since 1956.
Longtime Delaware sandwich seekers know exactly where to find the landmark shop, tucked away in a tidy red-brick building where Phillips Avenue meets Junction Street. (Newcomers, however, might have to google the address, 514 Casapulla Ave.)
For more than six decades, Casapulla's has never been a franchise.
And at least one member of the Casapulla family has been behind the Elsmere counter all those years.
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The Casapulla clan recently surprised Vincetta Casapulla Sparco, known as "Aunt Vee" and considered the large family's matriarch, with a celebration at the shop where she first started working 64 years ago.
The party came for Sparco, the eldest of the founder Luigi Casapulla's nine children, a few days before she blows out candles for her 97th birthday on April 9.
Rep. John “Larry” Mitchell said the idea to honor Sparco with accolades from the state House of Representatives came after he heard the Casapulla shop would be celebrating its 65th anniversary in September and that Sparco had been a part of the business since its beginning.
"We are here to honor Aunt Vee. We recognized her for being the matriarch," said Mitchell, adding Casapulla's subs are known "up and down the state."
Ann Casapulla, Vincetta's niece who runs the Casapulla's store in the Red Mill Shopping Center near Newark, said her aunt is as "spry as anything."
"She does everything," Casapulla said. "It was great to have her honored."
The festivities surprised Sparco, who has lived in Elsmere's Vilone Village for more than 60 years and still likes dining out and going to casinos.
"I never dreamed anything like this would happen today. I almost didn't come this morning," she joked as she stood outside the shop among a scrum of relatives and local politicians offering tributes.
Sparco grew up in Wilmington's Little Italy with her five sisters and three brothers. As a teenager, she sang on the radio and acted on stage in Italian plays.
She got married in 1947 and a few years later helped her Italian immigrant parents, Luigi and Anna Zampini Casapulla, when they purchased the old Phil's Market and ran it as a small neighborhood deli and grocer. She was later joined by brother Andrew.
Since Sparco was five years older than her next sibling and her father worked at the store and at his other job as an iron welder at General Chemical in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, she said, "I feel like I helped my mother raise a lot of the kids when they were younger. We were always a very close family."
The store was successful, but a year after purchasing it, Luigi's wife, Ann, died.
Eventually, bigger chain grocery stores began muscling into the area and took away neighborhood customers. Luigi, who emigrated from Castel Morrone, Italy, in 1921 after serving in World War I, decided to switch his shop to selling mostly sandwiches, subs and cheesesteaks.
"Thank God it went well for him," Sparco said.
The first Casapulla's Subs & Steaks was the start of a family dynasty that's built on fresh and flavorful Italian meats and cheeses, steak, good bread (the backbone of any sandwich), pickles, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Through the years, all nine of Luigi’s children and dozens of his grandchildren have worked at the original Casapulla’s. The business has since expanded to include the next four generations.
Some of the Casapulla's locations have come and gone. A store in Hockessin, the second one Luigi opened, was in business for 18 years until the family decided to close it in 1999.
The shop had been built on a site where Luigi once bought vegetables from an area farmer. The sandwich maker then used the produce at the Elsmere location.
When the Hockessin land was purchased in 1999, a developer knocked down the sub shop and leased the property to Wilmington Savings Fund Society for a bank branch.
Luigi Casapulla kept working into his 80s. He stayed at the shop making subs to order and talking to customers every day until his death in 1985.
Sparco said she isn't surprised Casapulla's Subs & Steaks has lasted for more than six decades.
"It's very popular, that's for sure. We've been No. 1 for years. For years. Well, up until Capriotti's came along. They took over for a little bit," she said, as her family laughed about the competing sub chain that was founded in Wilmington in 1976.
"They took over a little bit, but we were still there."
And they still are.