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Selected topics and events

Early Labor & Business

Italians worked in construction, on the railroad and in the factories that proliferated around the city while others went into the small trades. Before 1900, unskilled workers sometimes fell prey to padroni, labor agents who found work for their compatriots, often for an exorbitant fee. Women worked alongside men in the garment industry, second only to New York City, which spawned one of the largest strikes in Chicago history led by three Italians. Success came to early entrepreneurs such as Giovanni Garibaldi and Frank Cuneo, who together created the largest fruit and nut wholesale business in the United States.

Public Image

From the start, Italians were considered racially inferior to white Europeans and public debates in both academic circles and the media carried on unheeded for decades. Rampant anti-immigrant sentiment brought about The Immigration Act of 1924 and Chicago’s Italian Americans moved to defeat it. The small percentage of criminal elements active in the Italian American community, Black Hand practitioners and those who came up during the Prohibition Era, only lodged prejudices more firmly in the public’s mind. The most publicized protest from the community came in 2001 when the Chicago-based American Italian Defamation Association (AIDA) sued Time Warner for distributing HBO’s hit series The Sopranos because of its negative portrayal of Italian Americans.

Italo Balbo’s Flight

Balbo’s headline-grabbing transatlantic flight from Italy to Chicago during the 1933 World’s Fair brought unprecedented prestige to the Italian Colony. While it reinforced italianità among Chicago Italians, their reaction to the escalating threat of war in Europe would soon demonstrate their overwhelming allegiance to America.

Neighborhood Life

Popular processions of saints, or feste, brought the community together each year to celebrate deeply held traditions and religious customs. Hundreds of organizations from mutual-aid societies and sports clubs to business groups and regional associations helped Italian Americans maintain strong ties to their homeland. The love of opera cut across class lines and many Italian Americans grew up listening to the great voices of a bygone era like Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini and Chicago’s Vivian Della Chiesa, who made her debut in the Chicago Opera in 1936.

Our Lady of the Angels Fire

On December 1, 1958, fire swept through a Catholic grammar school in a West Side neighborhood with a large Italian-American population, killing 92 children and 3 nuns. The tragedy brought about changes in fire safety standards in American schools, but it also sparked a mass exodus of families from the neighborhood, a trend that brought about the demise of the city’s Italian Colonies in the ensuing decades.

Politics

Before World War II, the Italian American community produced only a handful of political leaders, among them Vito Marzullo, a strong ally of Mayor Daley who went on to become a state representative and alderman. For several decades, Frank Annunzio was the most visible political figure who fervently promoted Italian American causes throughout his three decades in office. One unwitting figure to venture into local politics is Florence Scala. A tailor’s daughter, Scala took on City Hall to protest the building of the University of Illinois campus, which eventually destroyed her Taylor Street neighborhood and most of the Hull House complex. Today’s Italian Americans leaders like Senator James DeLeo, Senate Majority Leader Debbie DeFrancesco Halvorson, Representative Skip Saviano, and Schiller Park mayor Anna Montana remain committed to serving diverse constituencies while maintaining close ties to their ethnic identity.

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