"We used to shred cheese and roll out pizza," she said during an interview last week. "In my mind, I always wondered if I could ever open my own place."
Now, many years later, she looks back on the dream come true as she closed the doors on American Hero after running the shop for 16 years.
"It's sad to close the store, but I can say I had a piece of my dream," she said.
LaBella and Bob Dillensnyder opened the sandwich shop at 880 Broadway in 1990. LaBella was working as a secretary and Dillensnyder had just lost his job at the Miller brewery due to a downsizing of the company. "We decided to go into business together," LaBella said.
The two of them purchased the business already called "American Hero," and made their dream a reality. The store became a social center for uptown Broadway, where people gathered as much to talk as to purchase food, although the 6-foot-long submarine sandwich became something of a legend, as did the daily $3.99 special. "Eventually we knew most of our customers by their first names," LaBella said. "Sometimes, people just came to have a cup of coffee. We had a lot of great regulars."
Many of these became more like friends and family than customers.
"We had an old-fashioned mom-and-pop store with people stopping by to say hello," she said.
In the early years, LaBella and Dillensnyder worked long hours, working from 10 in the morning to 10 at night seven days a week.
But as the years went on and more establishments started up in the area, they cut back their hours.
"We didn't feel the need to be open as long as we were then," LaBella said.
But the hours remained long and the two of them had to dedicate their time to making the business work. This meant giving up on a lot of things most people take for granted such as taking regular vacations or even going off to shop or to a movie whenever they wanted.
Perhaps after 16 years nonstop, both owners waited for the right opportunity to call it quits.
Earlier this year, the building owner decided to renovate, and this was the point in which both owners realized they could get out gracefully, though not without regrets.
"Bayonne is changing," LaBella said. "New residents are moving in. But overall, Bayonne has been very good to me. We were always a little store, not a Subway or Blimpie, and yet we managed to survive. I'm proud of that. When I look back, I realize that I had a taste of my dream. We did it. But for all those years, I was married to the store. I think it's time to move on. But I'll miss the people who treated us like family. We had a lot of very good regulars who I will miss very much."