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Emilia Pontarelli was the lively center of Tony’s Italian Deli & Subs in Edison Park.
Emilia Pontarelli was the lively center of Tony’s Italian Deli & Subs in Edison Park.
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Emilia Pontarelli, Tony’s Italian Deli matriarch, dead of coronavirus at 93

She’d make people buying her homemade lasagna, sauce, giardiniera at the Edison Park grocery feel like they’d been adopted by an Italian nonna: ‘Mama’s cooking for you tonight.’

When customers lined up at Emilia Pontarelli’s cash register at Tony’s Italian Deli on Northwest Highway in Edison Park, they felt like they’d been adopted by an Italian nonna.

She’d ask when they were going to get married.

If they bought her homemade lasagna, sugo (sauce) or giardiniera, she’d say approvingly: “Mama’s cooking for you tonight.”

If any of her grandchildren’s friends stopped in, she’d issue a firm directive: “You tell them to come visit me.”

When it came to staying in touch, there was no digital divide for the 93-year-old, according to her grandson Mike Rendina.

“You text him right now,” she’d tell his friends. “I want to see you text him.”

Now and then, she’d throw in a few of these: “I’m yelling at you because I love you!”

Emilia Pontarelli was the matriarch of a big family and kept relatives close in America.
Emilia Pontarelli was the matriarch of a big family and kept relatives close in America.
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As a girl growing up in Italy, she once had to be held back for her own safety after raining verbal abuse on a German soldier who seized her pet goat for dinner. In her 90s, she challenged her son-in-law to arm-wrestle to show she still had the strength that had enabled her to climb the mountains in her hometown of Rocchetta a Volturno.

Mrs. Pontarelli died April 10 at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge after contracting the coronavirus, according to her grandson.

She’d been living at Sunrise Senior Living in Park Ridge. When she developed a cough and fever, relatives could only FaceTime with her because of quarantine.

She didn’t want to leave the senior home. But when she grew weaker, her family had her transferred to the hospital.

“The nurses were unbelievable” in helping the family stay in virtual touch with her, Rendina said. He said one of them, Cara Debenedictis, “used her phone and let us FaceTime,” asking relatives, “When do you want to talk to her next?”

Rendina called Mrs. Pontarelli in the hospital to tell her: “I need you to get better, so we can all have a big dinner.”

“Just bring me the bottle of wine now,” Mrs. Pontarelli wisecracked back. “We’ll worry about the dinner later.”

They did a blessing-by-transference. “We had a priest go to the hospital and bless the nurse (Maria Zivoli) who took care of my grandmother,” Rendina said. Taking the holy water, “She went in and blessed my grandmother.”

But soon Mrs. Pontarelli no longer had the energy to talk anymore.

Young Emilia Neri married and became Emilia Pontarelli.
Young Emilia Neri married and became Emilia Pontarelli.
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If Tony’s Italian Deli & Subs is a cornerstone of Edison Park, she was the cornerstone’s core.

“That’s what she was about — working, cooking and food and taking care of people,” Rendina said.

The second of eight children in her family, she grew up Emilia Neri in a rocky region about 90 minutes east of Rome in the province of Isernia. With its plentiful sheep, goats and cows, it’s known for delicious cheese, meat and sausage.

“She herded the animals, goats and sheep, by herself,” Rendina said. “She took them up and down the mountain. She’d run circles around everyone, including the guys.”

When the Germans entered their town, they commandeered everything, including the Neri home.

“She never ate a hot dog her entire life because that’s what the Germans would eat out of their tin cans,” her grandson said. “She had a pet goat, and they tried to take it. She was not having any of it.”

He said her father had to separate her from the goat-snatchers so she wouldn’t be harmed.

When the bombing began, the townspeople had to seek refuge in caves.

Emilia and Vincenzo Pontarelli.
Emilia and Vincenzo Pontarelli.
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Emilia Pontarelli with her daughters Anna and Maria in her Italian hometown of Rocchetta a Volturno.
Emilia Pontarelli with her daughters Anna and Maria in her Italian hometown of Rocchetta a Volturno.
Provided

“They fled into the mountains, and she had some harrowing stories about everyone trying to stay quiet,” Rendina said.

She grew up, married Vincenzo Pontarelli, and they started their family. In 1967, they decided to immigrate to Chicago, where they had relatives, seeking more opportunities for their children: Tony, Maria and Anna. She landed a factory job at Illinois Tool Works, and her husband worked construction.

“She always made a point of how lucky we were to live here,” her grandson said.

In time, they settled in Harwood Heights.

Her son Tony started the deli. Her daughter Maria and Maria’s husband Vito Dalmazio later bought it. In the 1980s, Mrs. Pontarelli began helping out at the store.

When her grandchildren were little and wanted store-bought snacks like Lunchables instead of the polenta or bruschetta she made for them, she’d tell them, “This is what we lived on.”

“Now,” Rendina said of those dishes, “you go to an Italian restaurant, you pay a lot of money for it.”

At the end of a work shift, she’d urge relatives to get her home in time to watch her shows on Spanish-language TV, so similar to Italian.

“She just thought it was more interesting and had more flavor to it, whether it was telenovelas or the evening news,” Rendina said. “Most grandmas would say: ‘Slow down.’ She would say ‘Step on it.’ ”

Mrs. Pontarelli venerated St. Anthony. When her son was born sickly, “She prayed to San Antonio nonstop,” Rendina said. When he survived, she named him Anthony.

And when a granddaughter lost a wedding ring, Mrs. Pontarelli counseled, “Let’s pray to St. Anthony.” Her granddaughter found the ring.

Her husband died in 1989. In addition to her children Tony and Maria, she is survived by her sister Amalia Spaar, brothers Michele, Antonio, Giovanni and Pasquale, eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Services have been held, but a future memorial is planned.

Emilia Pontarelli surrounded by family at her 90th birthday celebration.
Emilia Pontarelli surrounded by family at her 90th birthday celebration.
Provided
Emilia Pontarelli for years could be found at a cash register at Tony’s Italian Deli in Edison Park.
Emilia Pontarelli for years could be found at a cash register at Tony’s Italian Deli in Edison Park.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

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