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Our time to shine

by David Witter
Printed in the February 2006 issue of Fra Noi
Fra Noi Inc. ©2006

Throughout their 150-year history in Chicago, Italian Americans have sacrificed to build churches, schools, businesses and social organizations, creating a unique culture and changing the face of the metropolitan area. In order for this rich culture and history to be preserved for posterity, Italian Americans will once again have to give of themselves.

In recent weeks, award-winning filmmaker Gia Amella negotiated with representatives from WTTW to produce the one-hour documentary. And They Came to Chicago: The Italian-American Legacy. Tentatively scheduled to air in October, during Italian Heritage Month, the film will follow in the footsteps of video presentations that have chronicled the history and hardships of practically every other major immigrant group in the city.

There have been shows on Channel 11 about the Chicago immigrant experiences of the Polish, Lithuanian, Swedish, Mexican, Greek and Jewish communities, Amella says. So the natural question is, 'Why not the Italians?'

This was the same question that Amella and Dal Cerro (who are also cousins) asked when they met with WTTW’s Dan Soles in November.

“Both of us met with Soles, asking him about a possible project,” Dal Cerro says. “His answer was basically, ‘I was wondering why there hasn’t been anything made either — I’d love to show something on Italian Americans.’”

Although WTTW officials expressed hearty support for the project, they let the film-making team know that there would be little or no financial support for the production.

“Having worked on a German-American project for PBS, I know that this will take at least $200,000,” Amella says. “So now we are reaching out to the community to help make this happen.”

So far, the team has already come up with a detailed creative and financial plan for the film.

The possibilities for this type of movie are almost infinite, but a sampling of subjects include Congressman Frank Annunzio, Nobel Prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, announcer Harry Carey, author Tina De Rosa, actor Joe Mantegna and Mother Frances Cabrini, the first American to achieve sainthood.

Chicago’s Italian colonies such as Taylor Street, 24th and Oakley, Melrose Park, Chicago Heights and North Harlem Avenue will also be examined for their diverse people, cultures and businesses, which add so much charm and beauty to Chicago. Along the way, the film will chronicle the festas, parades and ceremonies, capturing images of beautiful floats and tributes to saints, as well as the stirring sights and sounds of the Sicilian Band marching through the neighborhoods.

The film will cover events such as Italo Balbo’s flight, the Our Lady of Angels Fire, Italian-American involvement in the labor movement, and incidents of prejudice and defamation that have occurred throughout the decades. These people, neighborhoods and events will be illuminated on screen by interviewees like Jerry Colangelo, Dominic Candeloro, Joe Di Leonardi, Joe Girardi, Cammi Granato, Hal Bruno, Joe Mantegna, Johnny Frigo, Fred Gardaphe, Florence Scala and many others.

The program will also look at how Italian Americans are maintaining ties to Italy, either by studying there, traveling to visit relatives or, in the case of Renato Turano, running for the Italian Senate.

“The project will start with the first wave of immigrants, who came around 1850, and end with the state of the community today,” Amella says. “It is our chance to tell a tale that has never been told. The biggest problem is not what to put in, but all of the great people, places and events that we will have to leave out.”

The story that will be told, however, is definitely in good hands. Amella has spent the last two decades dividing her time between her native Chicago; New York; and Montevarchi, Tuscany, where she and her Italian-born husband maintain a home. Some of Amella’s achievements include episodes for A&E’s “American Justice”; the documentary “German Americans for WLIW in New York; a segment of “Storm Stories” on the Weather Channel, and programs for National Geographic International, PBS, the History Channel, Fox Family Network, the Learning Channel and several local and regional stations. She was also the recipient of a 1998 Fulbright Fellowship that helped fund her research into popular traditions in Palermo, Italy.

“My father, Joseph Amella, was born in Bridgeport and grew up as part of All Saints Parish,” Amella says. “Like many Italian Americans in Chicago, his childhood home was demolished to make room for the expressway. So in making this film, I hope to preserve a culture and memories that, as my father learned, can disappear so quickly.”

Other contributors to the project include Dal Cerro, a community activist, correspondent for Fra Noi for more than 15 years and contributor to such publications as Italic Way, and Dominic Candeloro, historian and professor at Governors State University, whose books have chronicled Italian-American life in Chicago, Chicago Heights, New Orleans and other areas. The project will be edited by Emmy Award-winner Martin Nelson, who has done work for National Geographic Television, NBC, PBS, TLC, Showtime and the Smithsonian Institution.

This dedicated team will need the support of the community to make this crucial project a reality. Donations are tax deductible and funds will be administered by the Italic Institute of America. Donors will receive a host of benefits, including sponsor credit during the broadcast and on the home video or DVD, attendance at the broadcast gala premiere, and the prestige and honor that comes from supporting such an endeavor.

“We need to get the entire community involved, not only as far as funding, but input and efforts,” Amella says. “It is our chance to tell a story that has never been told, and to express our pride in our heritage and community, by chronicling important aspects of our culture, preserving it so that it can be passed down to coming generations.”

More information on how to contribute to the project can be found at