Italian Americans

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Author: George Pozzetta
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 12,796 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Italian Americans

George Pozzetta


Italian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Italy, a country in southern Europe. Moored by Alpine mountains in the north, the boot-shaped Italian Peninsula juts into the central Mediterranean Sea. Along its European frontier, Italy shares borders with, from west to east, France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. In addition, Italy surrounds the Vatican City and San Marino, both of which are classified as independent countries. The nation's land mass, which includes the two major islands of Sicily and Sardinia and numerous smaller islands, measures 116,324 square miles (301,200 square kilometers)—double the size of the state of Florida. With the exception of the broad North Italian Plain at the foot of the Alps, the peninsula is crosscut through much of its length by the Apennine mountain chain. The obstacles created by the highlands, valleys, and gorges found in the mountain regions fostered strong cultural and linguistic differences among the Italian people.

According to a census conducted by the Italian national statistics office (Istat) in 2011, Italy had a population of roughly 60 million people. The vast majority of Italian citizens are Roman Catholic. Beginning in the 1980s, after hundreds of years of losing citizens to emigration, Italy experienced increased immigration. The majority of immigrants have been from former Communist Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, such as Romania and Hungary. The next largest group has been from North Africa, particularly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring of 2010. By 2011, foreign residents made up about 8 percent of the total population. Italy was a founding member of the European Union (EU) in 1999. The service sector makes up 72.8 percent of the country's GDP (gross domestic product), followed by industry (25.3 percent) and agriculture (1.9 percent). Like much of the EU, Italy was hit hard by the economic crisis that began in 2007 and was caused by, among other things, high public debt and a rising unemployment rate. However, Italy has fared better than many of its European neighbors. As of 2010 its economy was still ranked the tenth largest in the world, and it was listed as the third-largest economy in the Eurozone in 2012.

Italians began arriving in the United States in small numbers as early as the founding of the republic. This first group consisted of skilled craftsmen and artisans from northern Italy. Italians did not migrate to the United States in large numbers until the late 1800s. Four and a half million Italians, most of them from southern Italy, moved to the United States between 1880 and 1920. Primarily adult men, they came to find work with the intention of making money and returning home. Immigration slowed down in the 1920s due to the passage of restrictive immigration laws. The first such law was the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which imposed numerical limits on European immigration. The quota system allowed entrance to 3 percent of the population from a given country living in the United States at the time of the 1910 U.S. Census. Congress deliberately used the 1910 Census rather than the 1920 Census in order to favor immigrants from northern Europe. The majority of southern and eastern European immigrants, including Italians, had arrived after the cutoff date. The Immigration Act of 1924 reduced the flow of southern and eastern European immigration even further, reducing the quota from 3 percent of the 1910 numbers to 2 percent of the 1890 U.S. Census. Such restrictive policies remained in place for decades, until the laws underwent a complete overhaul in1952. After World War II the United States experienced another wave of immigration from Italy. But by the mid-1970s, the numbers had decreased due to an improved economy and political stability in their native land. Between 2000 and 2010, the total number of Italians who immigrated to the United States was less than 14,000.

The National Italian American Foundation estimated that as of 2010 there were more than 17 million people in the United States who identified themselves as Italian American, comprising close to 6 percent of the total population. Areas with the largest concentration of Italian Americans were New York, New Jersey, and California.


Early History Italy's modern state traces its roots to the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BCE. Romans engaged in territorial expansion and conquest of neighboring lands, devising effective colonization policies that ultimately sustained a widespread realm. By 172 BCE Rome controlled all of the Italian Peninsula and began moving outward into the Mediterranean Page 506  |  Top of Articlebasin. At its peak, the Roman Empire extended from the British Isles to the Euphrates River. The pax romana, or period of peace and stability, began to crumble, however, by the end of the first century CE. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 CE presaged the more complete disintegration of the empire in the later fifth and sixth centuries. With its political integration shattered, the country remained fragmented until the late nineteenth century. Italy was, in the view of many Europeans, a “mere geographic expression.”

Italy is a relatively young nation-state, achieving full unification only during the Risorgimento (“Resurgence”) of 1860–1870. Prior to this, the peninsula consisted of often mutually antagonistic kingdoms, duchies, city-states, and principalities. Some of these regions had a history of autonomous rule, while others came under the periodic control of foreign powers as a result of recurrent wars and shifting political alliances. Over the centuries, therefore, powerful regional loyalties emerged, which persisted until well after unification. Although local cultural variations remained notable, the most significant internal distinctions have been those stemming from the contrast between a relatively prosperous, cosmopolitan, urban north and a more rustic economically depressed, agricultural south.

Southern Italy (Mezzogiorno), the source of more than 75 percent of immigration to the United States, was an impoverished region possessing a highly stratified, virtually feudal society. The bulk of the population consisted of artisans (artigiani), petty landowners or sharecroppers (contadini), and farm laborers (giornalieri), all of whom eked out meager existences. For various reasons, including security, residents typically clustered in hill towns situated away from farmland. Each day required long walks to family plots, adding to the toil that framed daily lives. Families typically worked as collective units to ensure survival.

The impact of unification on southern Italy was disastrous. The new constitution heavily favored the north, especially in its tax policies, industrial subsidies, and land programs. The hard-pressed peasantry shouldered an increased share of national expenses while attempting to compete in markets dominated more and more by outside capitalist intrusions. These burdens only exacerbated existing problems of poor soil, absentee landlords, inadequate investment, disease, and high rates of illiteracy. With cruel irony, as livelihoods became increasingly precarious, population totals soared. Italy jumped from 25 million residents in 1861 to 33 million in 1901 to more than 35 million in 1911, despite the massive migration already underway.

Modern Era Italy joined the turn-of-the-century European land grab in Africa, invading and annexing Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya, thus creating the beginnings of a modern Italian empire. The Italian army also attempted to conquer Ethiopia (1895) but suffered a humiliating defeat. With the 1920s came the secularization of politics and the rise of Fascism. There has been a struggle between Fascism and anti-Fascist groups, such as socialists, labor unionists, and communists, in Italy ever since. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini came to power in 1922 with a goal of expanding the Italian empire. Italian forces returned to Ethiopia in 1935, this time succeeding in turning the country into a colony. In 1939 Italy invaded Albania and made it a protectorate.

Mussolini's decision to enter World War II in 1940 initially received popular support, but once Italy was defeated and forced to give up its colonies, the move was subsequently seen as disastrous. Mussolini was overthrown in a coup in 1943 and executed in 1945, the same year the war ended. In 1946 a referendum ended the monarchy and instituted a republican form of government. Italians held their first democratic elections in April 1948, creating a parliamentary democracy led by a coalition of Italian Christian democrats and communists. This so-called First Republic lasted until the fall of communism in Europe in the early 1990s, at which point the electorate called for sweeping reforms. The old parties disappeared or changed names, regionalism in the north threatened Italian unity, and for a brief time the National Alliance (formerly a neo-Fascist party) joined a coalition government. In spite of the changes, the country remained a parliamentary republic. Center-left coalitions dominated the landscape from the mid-1990s to 2001. Since then, the government has shifted between the center-left and more conservative parties.

The Italian economy boomed in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, but in the 1990s and 2000s, Italy experienced a sharp reduction in real wages, benefits, and social services as well as an increasingly privatized industrial sector. A “brain-drain” occurred in the corporate and research fields as young professionals left Italy for economic opportunities in other countries. Another consequence of economic decline was renewed pressure on young women to marry and have children in order to ensure social reproduction and to preserve the full-time job market for men.

Greece's request for a bailout from the European Union in early 2010 highlighted the growing economic crisis in Europe and caused interest rates to soar on Italy's massive national debt. In 2011 the Italian Parliament passed austerity measures—including spending cuts, tax increases, and economic change—in its bid for lower interest rates and stronger support from the EU's wealthier member nations, Germany in particular. Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, objected to the austerity measures, and the already scandal-plagued leader resigned in protest. Berlusconi had dominated Italian politics since the early 1990s, but by 2011 his credibility had been seriously undermined by sex scandals, right-wing pro-Fascist rhetoric, and criminal convictions for tax evasion. The three-time prime minister, also a media mogul and owner Page 507  |  Top of Articleof A.C. Milan football club, was replaced by a technocrat, Mario Monte. Monte stepped down in mid-2012 amid growing public dissatisfaction with the way he was handing the crisis. A national presidential election was scheduled for April 2013, with the vote for prime minister set for May of the same year. In late 2012 Europe's Central Bank bought bonds from Italy, helping lower the country's interest rates and stave off a financial collapse.


After the American Revolution in the late 1800s, a small flow of largely northern Italian skilled artisans, painters, sculptors, musicians, and dancers came to the new nation, filling economic niches. With the failure of the early-nineteenth-century liberal revolutions in Italy, these immigrants were joined by a trickle of political refugees, the most famous of whom was military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi. By the second half of the century, American cities also typically included Italian street entertainers, tradesmen, statuette makers, and stoneworkers, who often established the first beachheads of settlement for the migrations to come. Many of these pioneers were merely extending generations-old migratory patterns that had earlier brought them through Europe. As an old Italian proverb instructed, “Chi esce riesce” (He who leaves succeeds).

This initial Italian movement dispersed widely throughout the United States, but its numbers were too small to constitute a significant presence. By 1850, the heaviest concentration was in Louisiana (only 915 people), the result of Sicilian migration to New Orleans and its environs. Within a decade, California contained the highest total of any state—still a mere 2,805—and New York, soon to become home to millions of Italian immigrants, counted 1,862.

Everything changed with the mass migration from Italy that began in the 1880s. From 1876 to 1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States, with more than 2 million coming in the years 1901–1910 alone. Despite these massive numbers, it should be noted that roughly two-thirds of Italian emigrants went elsewhere, especially to Europe and South America. Immigration to the United States before and after this period accounted for approximately 1 million additional arrivals—a considerable movement in its own right—but the era of mass migration remains central to the Italian immigrant experience.

The first phase consisted primarily of temporary migrants—“sojourners”—who desired immediate employment, maximum savings, and quick repatriation. The movement was predominately composed of young, single men of prime working age (fifteen to thirty-five) who clustered in America's urban centers. Multiple trips were commonplace, and ties to American society, such as learning English, securing citizenship, and acquiring property, were minimal. With eyes focused on the old-world paese (village), at least half of the sojourners returned to Italy with the goal of working in the United States and sending wages home to the wives and children left behind before returning home themselves, although in some years return rates were much higher. Such mobility earned Italians the sobriquet “birds of passage,” a label that persisted until women and families began to migrate and settlement became increasingly permanent in the years following 1910.

Migrants brought with them their family-centered peasant cultures and their fiercely local identifications, or campanilismo. They typically viewed themselves as residents of particular villages or regions, not as “Italians.” The organizational and residential life of early communities reflected these facts, as people limited their associations largely to kin and paesani (fellow villagers). The proliferation of narrowly based mutual aid societies and feste (feast days) honoring local patron saints were manifestations of these tendencies. Gradually, as immigrants acclimated to the American milieu, in which others regarded them simply as Italians, and as they increasingly interacted with fellow immigrants, campanilismo gave way to a more national identity. Group-wide organization and identity, nonetheless, have always been difficult to achieve.

In terms of settlement, immigrants were (and are) highly concentrated. Using kin- and village-based chain migration networks to form “Little Italies,” they clustered heavily in cities in the Northeast Region (the Mid-Atlantic and New England states) and the Midwest, with outposts in California and Louisiana. More than 90 percent settled in only eleven states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Louisiana—and approximately 90 percent congregated in urban areas. These patterns largely hold true today, although immigrants have branched out to locations such as Arizona and Florida. In every settlement area, there has been, over time, a slow but steady shift from central cities to suburbs.

Immigrants often sought out Little Italies as a result of the hostility they encountered in American society. As a despised minority rooted in the working class and seemingly resistant to assimilation, Italians suffered widespread discrimination in housing and employment. American responses to the immigrants occasionally took uglier forms as Italians became the victims of intimidation and violence, the most notorious incident being the 1890 lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans. Italian mass migration coincided with the growth of an American feeling of “nativism” that identified southern and eastern Europeans as undesirable elements. Inspired by the pseudoscientific findings of eugenics and social Darwinism, late-nineteenth-century nativists often branded southern Italians as especially inferior. Powerful stereotypes centering on Page 508  |  Top of Articlepoverty, clannishness, illiteracy, high disease rates, and an alleged proclivity toward criminal activities underscored the view that southern Italians were a degenerate “race” that should be denied entry to the United States. Criticism of Italians became integral to the successful legislative drives to enact the nativist Literacy Test in 1917 and National Origins Acts in 1921 and 1924. Although the dominant culture frequently scorned Italians in the early part of the twentieth century, for the most part they tended to perceive Italians as white. However, the 1924 legislation classified southern Italians as nonwhite in an attempt to preserve the homogeneity of the U.S. population. According to an article in a scholarly journal at the time, “Both laws express the determination that the U.S. is to be a white man's country.” Northern Italians were quick to classify their southern compatriots as “dark” in order that they, the northerners, be seen as part of the dominant culture.

Within Little Italies, immigrants created New World societies. A network of Italian-language institutions—newspapers, theaters, churches, mutual aid societies, recreational clubs, and debating societies—helped fuel an emerging Italian American ethnic culture. Aspects of folk, popular, and high culture intermixed in this milieu, yielding an array of entertainment options. Saloons or club buildings in larger urban centers often featured traditional Italian puppet and marionette shows while immigrant men sipped wines and played card games of mora, briscola, and tresette. By the early 1900s, a lively Italian-language theater brought entertainment to thousands and sustained the careers of professional acting troupes and noted performers such as the comedic genius Eduardo Migliacco, known as “Farfariello.” On a more informal level, Italian coffeehouses often presented light comedies, heroic tragedies, and dialect plays sponsored by drama clubs. Italian opera was a staple in most American urban centers, and working-class Italian music halls attracted customers by offering renditions of Neapolitan or Sicilian songs and dances. Band performances and choral recitals were regularly staged on the streets of Italian settlements. Although illiteracy rates among immigrants often ran well above 50 percent, newcomers in larger cities had access to Italian-language bookstores stocked with poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction. In 1906 one New York bookseller published a 176-page catalog to advertise his merchandise.

The cultural patterns of Little Italies were constantly evolving, providing for a dynamic interplay between older forms brought from Italy and new inventions forged in the United States. Many immigrants attempted to re-create old-world celebrations and rituals upon arrival in the United States, but those that directly competed with American forms soon fell away. The celebration of Epiphany (January 6), for example, was the principal Christmastime festivity in Italy, featuring the visit of La Befana, a kindly old witch who brought presents for children. In the United States the more popular Christmas Eve and Santa Claus displaced this tradition.

Even those cultural forms more sheltered from American society were contested. Immigrant settlements were not homogenous entities. Various members of the community fought for the right to define the group, and the ongoing struggle for dominance invariably employed cultural symbols and events. The commercial and political elites (prominenti)—usually aided by the Italian Catholic clergy—sought to promote Italian nationalism as a means of self-advancement. These forces invested great energy in celebrations of Italian national holidays (such as venti di settembre, which commemorates Italian unification), and in the erection of statues of such Italian heroes as Columbus, the poet Dante, and military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi.

These activities were challenged by a variety of leftist radicals (sovversivi), who sought very different cultural and political goals. Anarchists, socialists, and syndicalists such as Carlo Tresca and Arturo Giovannitti considered Italian Americans as part of the world proletariat, and they celebrated holidays (Primo Maggio—May Day) and heroes (Gaetano Bresci, the assassin of Italian King Umberto) reflecting this image. These symbols also played roles in mass strikes and worker demonstrations led by the radicals. Meanwhile, the majority of Italian Americans continued to draw much of their identity from the peasant cultures of the old-world paese. Columbus Day, the preeminent Italian American ethnic celebration, typically blended elements of all these components, with multiple parades and competing banquets, balls, and public presentations.

World War I proved an ambiguous interlude for Italian immigrants. Italy's alliance with the United States and the service of many immigrants in the U.S. military precipitated some level of American acceptance. The war also produced, however, countervailing pressures that generated more intense nationalism among Italians and powerful drives toward assimilation—“100 percent Americanism”—in the wider society. Immigration restrictions after 1924 halted Italian immigration, although the foreign-born presence remained strong (the 1930 U.S. Census recorded 1,623,000 Italian-born residents—the group's historic high). As new arrivals slowed and the second generation matured during the 1920s and 1930s, the group changed.

Several critical developments shaped the character of Italian America during the interwar years. National Prohibition provided lucrative illegal markets, which some Italian Americans successfully exploited through bootlegging operations. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the “gangster” image of Italians (exemplified by Al Capone) was perpetuated

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through films and popular literature. The celebrated murder case of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti further molded the group's national image, underwriting the conception of Italians as dangerous radicals.

The Great Depression overtook earlier economic gains, often forcing Italian Americans back into their family-centered ethnic communities. Here, the emerging second generation found itself in frequent conflict with the first. Heavily influenced by the traditional contadino culture passed on from their parents, the second generation uneasily straddled two worlds. Traditional notions of proper behavior, stressing collective responsibilities toward the faily, strict chastity and domestic roles for females, rigid chaperonage and courting codes, and male dominance, clashed with the more individualist, consumer-driven American values children learned in schools, stores, and on the streets. Problems of marginality, lack of self-esteem, rebellion, and delinquency were the outcomes.

Partly because of these dynamics, the community structures of Little Italies began to change. The more Americanized second generation began to turn away from older, Italian-language institutions founded by immigrants, many of which collapsed during the Depression. Italian theaters and music halls, for example, largely gave way to vaudeville, nickelodeons, organized sports, and radio programming. During the 1920s and 1930s, these transformations were also influenced by Mussolini's Fascist regime, which sponsored propaganda campaigns designed to attract the support of Italian Americans. The prominenti generally supported these initiatives, often inserting Fascist symbols (the black shirt), songs (“Giovinezza”—the Fascist anthem), and holidays (the anniversary of the March on Rome) into the ichnography and pageantry of America's Little Italies. A small but vocal anti-Fascist element existed in opposition, and it substituted counter values and emblems. Memorials to Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy murdered by Fascists, and renditions of the communist song “Bandiera Rossa” and the Italian national anthem “Inno di Garibaldi” became fixtures of anti-Fascist festivities. Thus, the political world of Italian America remained divided.

Any doubts regarding American Italians' loyalties to the United States were firmly quashed when Italian Americans rushed to aid the American struggle against the Axis powers after Italy declared war on the United States in 1941. More than 500,000 Italian Americans joined the U.S. military, serving in all theaters, including the Italian campaign. The war effort and ensuing anticommunist crusade stressed conformity, loyalty, and patriotism, and in the 1940s and 1950s it Page 510  |  Top of Articleappeared that Italian Americans had comfortably settled into the melting pot. The second generation especially benefited from its war service and the postwar economic expansion, which yielded new levels of acceptance and integration. In the 1950s, they experienced substantial social mobility and embraced mass consumerism and middle-class values. Under the GI Bill, Italian American veterans had access to funds for higher education and housing.

Since the end of World War II, more than 600,000 Italian immigrants have arrived in the United States. A large percentage came shortly after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, at which time yearly totals of Italian immigrants averaged about 23,000. Beginning in 1974, the numbers steadily declined as a result of improved economic conditions in Italy and changing policies in other immigrant-receiving nations. In 1990 the numbers of Italians wanting to move to the United States had fallen below the quota, and only 3,300 Italians immigrated that year. But 831,922 Italian-born residents remained in the country, guaranteeing that Italian language and culture were still part of the American cultural mosaic. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 14,000 Italians had immigrated to the United States since 2000. That census reported approximately seventeen million Italian Americans, comprising 5.9 percent of the total U.S. population.


Italian is a Romance language derived directly from Latin; it utilizes the Latin alphabet, but the letters j, k, w, x, and y are found only in words of foreign origin. “Standard” Italian—based on the Tuscan dialect—is a relatively recent invention and was not used universally until well into the twentieth century. Numerous dialects were the dominant linguistic feature during the years of mass immigration. The 2010 U.S. Census reported that 93 percent of Italian Americans speak English only, and only 1.7 percent are less than fluent in English.

Italian dialects did not simply possess different tonalities or inflections. Some were languages in their own right, with separate vocabularies and, for a few, fully developed literatures (e.g., Venetian, Piedmontese, and Sicilian). Italy's mountainous terrain produced conditions in which proximate areas often possessed mutually unintelligible languages. For example, the word for “today” in standard Italian is oggi, but ancheuj in Piedmontese, uncuó in Venetian, ste iorne in Sicilian, and oji in Calabrian. Similarly, “children” in Italian is bambini, but it becomes cit in Piedmontese, fruz in Friulian, guagliuni in Neapolitan, zitedi in Calabrian, and picciriddi in Sicilian. Thus, language barriers encouraged campanilismo, further fragmenting the emerging Italian American world.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Italian was the fifth most common language taught in American colleges and universities. It was the seventh most commonly spoken language, with more than one million Italian speakers living in the United States. Cities with Italian-speaking and Sicilian-speaking communities include Buffalo, New York; Chicago; Miami; New York City; and Philadelphia. However, the majority of Italian speakers in the United States were over the age of sixty-five. The College Board, a national nonprofit organization devoted to providing every high school student in the United States with the opportunity to receive college-level instruction and college credit, provides high schools around the country with curricula, assessment tools, and district guidance on thirty-four advanced placement (AP) subjects. Due to a perceived lack of interest, the College Board did not offer Italian language as an AP class until 2006, and after only three years, the organization dropped the class because of insufficient enrollment.

Aware of these facts, numerous Italian American organizations and individuals are actively promoting the teaching and learning of Italian among the younger generations. In cities such as Houston, Texas; New York City; San Francisco; and Seattle, Washington, there are institutions devoted exclusively to Italian-language instruction, offering daytime and evening classes. Groups such as the National Council for the Promotion of Italian Language and the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) offer scholarships to students, grants to Italian-language teachers, and heritage travel funds to Italian Americans interested in developing their language skills. Every summer the NIAF runs an Italian immersion summer camp for children ages eight to eighteen. Web-based groups have launched campaigns to increase Italian language-learning opportunities, such as ItalianAware's book campaign aimed at expanding the New York Public Library System's collection.

Greetings and Popular Expressions Very soon after the Italians' arrival, all dialects became infused with Americanisms, quickly creating a new form of communication often intelligible only to immigrants. The new patois was neither Italian nor English, and it included such words as giobba for job, grossiera for grocery, bosso for boss, marachetta for market, baccausa for outhouse, ticchetto for ticket, bisiniss for business, trocco for truck, sciabola for shovel, loffare for the verb “to loaf,” and carpetto for carpet. Angelo Massari, who immigrated to Tampa, Florida, in 1902, described preparations in his Sicilian village prior to leaving it:

I used to interview people who had returned from America. I asked them thousands of questions, how America was, what they did in Tampa, what kind of work was to be had. … One of them told me the language was English, and I asked him how to say one word or another in that language. I got these wonderful samples of Sicilian American English Page 511  |  Top of Articlefrom him: tu sei un boia, gud morni, olraiti, giachese, misti, sciusi, bred, iessi, bud [you are a boy, good morning, alright, jacket, mister, excuse me, bread, yes, but]. He told me also that in order to ask for work, one had to say, ’Se misti gari giobbi fo mi?’ [Say, mister got a job for me?].

Angelo Massari, The Wonderful Life of Angelo Massari, trans. Arthur Massolo. New York: Exposition Press, 1965: 46–47.


Although Italian immigrants were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, their faith was a personal, folk religion of feast days and peasant traditions that often had little to do with formal dogma or rituals. As such, its practices differed greatly from those encountered in America's Irish-dominated Catholic Church. Unlike Irish Americans, most Italians possessed no great reverence for priests (who had sometimes been among the oppressors in Italy) or the institutions of the official Church, and they disliked what they regarded as the impersonal, puritanical, and overly doctrinal Irish approach to religion. As in Italy, men continued to manifest anticlerical traditions and to attend church only on select occasions, such as weddings and funerals.

For their part, the Irish clergy generally regarded Italians as indifferent Catholics—even pagans—and often relegated them to basement services. The Irish American hierarchy agonized over the “Italian Problem,” and suspicion and mistrust initially characterized relations between the groups, leading to defections among the immigrant generation and demands for separate parishes. The disproportionately low presence of Italian Americans in the church leadership today is at least partially a legacy of this strained relationship. Protestant missionaries were not unaware of these developments. Many attempted to win converts but met with very little success. Catholic churches in the United States responded to pressure from different immigrant populations to preserve their faith as it had been handed down in the home country. The Church established so-called national parishes—parishes that were organized around the worshippers' ethnic background rather than their geographical proximity. Within the new framework, Italian American Catholics developed parish schools, national social networks, and mutual aid societies. Italian parishes proliferated after 1900. In many settlements, parish churches became focal points providing a sense of ethnic identity, a range of social services, and a source of community adhesion.

Italian-immigrant Catholicism centered on the local patron saints and the beliefs, superstitions, and practices associated with the feste. Feast days not only assisted in perpetuating local identities but also served as a means for public expression of immigrant faith. In the early years, feast days replicated those of the homeland. Festivals were occasions for great celebration, complete with music, parades, dancing, eating, and fireworks displays. At the high point, statues of local saints such as San Rocco, San Giuseppe, or San Gennaro were carried through the streets of Little Italies in a procession.

Worshippers lined the streets as processions moved toward the parish church, and they vied to pin money on the statue, place gifts on platforms, or make various penances (walking barefoot, crawling, licking the church floor [lingua strascinuni], reciting certain prayers). Irish prelates frequently attempted to ban such events, viewing them as pagan rituals and public spectacles. A cluster of beliefs focusing on the folk world of magic, witches, ghosts, and demons further estranged Italians from the church hierarchy. Many Italian immigrants were convinced, for example, of the existence of the evil eye (malocchio or jettatura), and believed that wearing certain symbols, the most potent of which were associated with horns (corni), or garlic amulets provided protection from its power.

As the second and subsequent generations grew to maturity, most strictly old-world forms of religious observance and belief were discarded, leading to what some have called the “hibernization” of Italian American Catholicism. Many feast day celebrations remain, although, in some cases, they have been transformed into mass cultural events that draw thousands of non-Italians. The San Gennaro feste in Manhattan's Little Italy is a case in point: once celebrated only by Neapolitans, it now attracts heterogeneous crowds from hundreds of miles away.


The integration of Italians into American life in the early twentieth century was a result of changes in both the group and the larger society. Italians were beginning to make a commitment to permanent settlement. This process was substantially underway by 1910, cresting in the 1920s when new immigration fell off. After this, perpetuation of the old-world public culture became increasingly difficult, although the family-based value structure was more resilient. During the 1920s and 1930s, the second generation continued to display many of its hallmarks: children of immigrants still held largely blue-collar jobs and were underrepresented in schools, tied to Little Italy residences, and attracted to in-group marriages—choices that demonstrated the continuing power of parental mores.

Changing contexts, however, diminished the “social distance” that separated Italians from other Americans. In the 1930s, second-generation Italian Americans joined forces with others in labor unions and lobbied for benefits. They also began to make political gains as part of the Democratic Party's New Deal coalition. Also for the first time, the national popular culture began to include Italian Americans among its heroes. In music, sports, politics, and cinema the careers of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Fiorello LaGuardia, Don Ameche, and others suggested that national attitudes toward Italians were in transition.

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Italian Americans at Sorrento Caffe in Little Italy in Manhattan. Italian Americans at Sorrento Caffe in Little Italy in Manhattan. DBTRAVEL / DBIMAGES / ALAMY

World War II was a critical benchmark in the acceptance of Italian Americans. Their wholehearted support of America's cause and their disproportionately high ratio of service in the military legitimized them in the eyes of America. The war also transformed many Little Italies, as men and women left for military service or to work in war industries. Upon their return, many newly affluent Italian Americans left for suburban locations and fresh opportunities, further eroding the institutions and contadino culture that once thrived in ethnic settlements.

The Cold War pushed the group further into the mainstream as Italian Americans joined in the anticommunist fervor gripping the nation. Simultaneously, structural changes in the economy vastly expanded the availability of white-collar, managerial positions, and Italian Americans jumped to take advantage. Beginning in the 1950s, they pursued higher education in greater numbers than ever before, many receiving aid as a result of the GI Bill. Such developments put them into more immediate and positive contact with other Americans, who exhibited greater acceptance in the postwar years.

Ironically, a resurgent Italian American ethnicity emerged at the same time, as the group experienced increasing integration into the larger society. Italian Americans were active participants in the ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s. As American core values came under assault in the midst of Vietnam, Watergate, and the rising counterculture, and the nation's urban centers became torn by riots and civil protest, Italian Americans felt especially vulnerable and besieged. Unlike other ethnic groups, they had remained in urban enclaves, manifesting high rates of home ownership, where they now found themselves in contact and conflict with African Americans. Many interpreted the ensuing clashes in cultural terms, seeing themselves as an embattled minority defending traditional values in the face of new compensatory government programs. In response, ethnic traditions surrounding family, neighborhood, and homes gained heightened visibility and strength. New Italian American organizations and publications fostering ethnic identity came into being, and many old rituals experienced a resurgence, most notably the celebration of the feste.

Intermarriage rates increased after the 1950s, especially among the third and fourth generations who were now coming of age. By 1991, the group's overall in-marriage rate was just under 33 percent, above the average of 26 percent for other ethnic groups. But among those born after 1940—by now a majority in the Italian American population—the rate was only 20 percent, and these marriages crossed both ethnic and religious lines.

Once a marginalized, despised minority, Italian Americans are now among the most highly accepted groups according to national surveys measuring “social distance” indicators (Italians ranked fourteenth in 1926, but fifth in 1977). All of the statistical data point to a high level of structural assimilation in American society, although Italian American ethnicity has not disappeared. That Italian American identity has lost much of its former negative weight is suggested further by recent census figures for ancestry group claiming. The 1980 census recorded 12.1 million individuals who claimed Italian ancestry (5.4 percent of the national population). By 1990 this figure had risen to 14.7 million (5.9 percent), and by 2010 it had risen to seventeen million, indicating that ethnicity remains an important and acceptable component of self-identification for substantial numbers of Italian Americans.

Despite strong evidence of integration, Italian Americans retain distinguishing characteristics. They are still geographically concentrated in the old settlement areas, and they display a pronounced attachment to the values of domesticity and family loyalty. Italian Americans still rely heavily on personal and kin networks in residential choices, visiting patterns, and general social interaction. Perhaps most distinctive, the group continues to suffer from stereotypes associating it with criminal behavior, especially in the form of organized crime and the mafia. These images have persisted despite research documenting that Italian Americans possess crime rates no higher than other segments of American society and that organized crime is a multiethnic enterprise. Television and film images of Italian Americans continue to emphasize criminals, “lovable or laughable dimwits” who engage in dead-end jobs, and heavily accented, overweight “mamas” with their pasta pots.

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These representations have hampered the movement of Italian Americans into the highest levels of corporate and political life. The innuendos of criminal ties advanced during Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential candidacy in 1984 and during Mario Cuomo's aborted presidential bids illustrate the political repercussions of these stereotypes, and many Italian Americans believe that bias has kept them underrepresented in the top echelons of the business world. Such negative stereotyping persists, with TV shows like The Sopranos, which aired from 1999 to 2006, playing off the Italian American stereotype of mobsters, and the reality show Jersey Shore (2009–2012), which many saw as a negative portrayal of Italian Americans. Since the 1970s, such organizations as the Americans of Italian Descent, the Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) have mounted broad-based anti-defamation campaigns protesting such negative imagery. These groups have succeeded in getting advertisements pulled off the air, language changed in the movies, and even getting the U.S. attorney general's office to stop using the term “mafia” in its criminal prosecutions.

Cuisine Historically, the difficult conditions of daily life in Italy dictated frugal eating habits. Most peasants consumed simple meals based on whatever vegetables or grains (lentils, peas, fava beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, and wild greens) were prevalent in each region. A staple for most common folk was coarse black bread. Pasta was a luxury, and peasants typically ate meat only two or three times a year on special holidays. Italian cuisine was—and still is—regionally distinctive, and even festive meals varied widely. The traditional Christmas dish in Piedmont was agnolotti (ravioli), while anguille (eels) were served in Campania, sopa friulana (celery soup) in Friuli, and bovoloni (fat snails) in Vicenza.

In the United States, many immigrants planted small backyard garden plots to supplement the table and continued to raise cows, chickens, and goats whenever possible. Outdoor brick ovens were commonplace, serving as clear ethnic markers of Italian residences. With improved economic conditions, pastas, meats, sugar, and coffee were consumed more frequently.

“Italian cooking” in the United States has come to mean southern Italian, especially Neapolitan, cuisine, which is rich in tomato sauces, heavily spiced, and pasta-based. Spaghetti and meatballs (not generally known in Italy) and pizza are perhaps the quintessential Italian dishes in the United States. More recently, northern Italian cooking—characterized by rice (risotto) and corn (polenta) dishes and butter-based recipes—has become increasingly common in homes and restaurants. Garlic (aglio), olive oil (olio d'oliva), mushrooms (funghi), and nuts (nochi) of various types are common ingredients found in Italian cooking. Wine (vino), consumed in moderate amounts,

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5 cups chicken stock

1 pinch saffron threads (optional)

5 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1½ cups arborio rice

1 cup parmesan cheese, grated

salt and black pepper


Bring stock to a boil, then reduce to a low simmer. Ladle a little stock into a small bowl; add the saffron threads and let infuse.

Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large sauce pan until foaming. Add onions, stirring frequently, and cook for 2 minutes, then add garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Cook only until softened, not brown. Add the rice and stir until the grains start to swell and burst; then add a few ladles of stock, saffron liquid, and salt and pepper to taste. Stirring constantly over low heat until liquid has beed absorbed. Keep adding stock, letting the rice absorb the liquid before adding more.

After about 20–25 minutes, the rice should be just tender and the risoto golden and creamy. Take off heat and add parmesan cheese and remaining 1 tablespoon butter, mixing until butter has melted.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer to serving plates and serve hot with additional parmesan cheese.

Serves 5

is a staple. Overall, Italian dishes have become so popular that they have been accepted into the nation's dietary repertoire, but not in strictly old-world forms. Americanized dishes are generally milder in their spicing and more standardized than old-world fare.

Dances and Songs Italian immigrants utilized traditional costumes, folk songs, folklore, and dances for special events, but like many aspects of Italian life, they were so regionally specific that they defy easy characterization. Perhaps the most commonly recognized folk dance, the tarantella, for example, is Neapolitan, with little diffusion elsewhere in the peninsula.

Holidays The major national holidays of Italy—Festa della Republica (June 5), Festa dell'Unità Nazionale (November 6), and Festa del Lavoro (May 1)—are no longer occasions of public celebration among Italian Americans. Some religious holidays, such as Epifania di Gesù (January 6), receive only passing notice. Most

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Italian proverbs tend to reflect the conditions of peasant and immigrant lives:

  • Work hard, work always, and you will never know hunger.
  • He who leaves the old way for the new knows what he loses but knows not what he will find.
  • Buy oxen and marry women from your village only.
  • The wolf changes his skin but not his vice.
  • The village is all the world.
  • Do not miss the Saint's day, he helps you and provides at all times.
  • Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you what you are.
  • He who respects others will be respected.

Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Day, but usually without any particular ethnic character. The principal occasions of public celebration typically revolve around Columbus Day, the quintessential Italian American national holiday, and the feste honoring patron saints. These events have, in general, become multiday celebrations virtually devoid of any religious or Italian national connotation and involving numerous non-Italians.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, St. Joseph's Day (March 19) is celebrated by some members of the Italian American community. The tradition began in Sicily, the origin of much of New Orleans' Italian American population. The day is commemorated by the building of temporary three-tiered alters, loaded with food offerings for the saint. The altars are found in private homes, churches, some restaurants, and public places associated with Italians, with the general public invited. Visitors to the altars are often given lagniappe (a sack of cookies and fava beans, a good luck charm) to take home.

Preparations for St. Joseph's Day begin several weeks in advance with the baking of cookies, breads, and cakes. Cookies, such as twice-baked biscotti and sesame-seed varieties, are shaped into forms with religious significance. Bread, cannoli, seafood, and vegetable dishes are also found on the altar. Such dishes include forschias and pasta Milanese covered with mudriga. Mudriga, made of breadcrumbs and sugar, is also called “St. Joseph's sawdust.” No meat is found because the holiday almost always falls during Lent. In addition to food, the altar often has an image of St. Joseph, homegrown flowers, candles, and palm branches.


The family (la famiglia) rests at the heart of Italian society. Family solidarity was the major bulwark from which the rural population confronted a harsh society, and the family unit (including blood relatives and relatives by marriage) became the center of allegiances. Economically and socially, the family functioned as a collective enterprise, an “all-inclusive social world” in which the individual was subordinated to the larger entity. Parents expected children to assist them at an early age by providing gainful labor, and family values stressed respect for the elderly, obedience to parents, hard work, and deference to authority.

Gender Roles The traditional Italian family was “father-headed, but mother-centered.” In public, the father was the uncontested authority figure, and wives were expected to defer to their husbands. At home, however, females exercised considerable authority as wives and mothers and played central roles in sustaining familial networks. Still, male children occupied a favored position of superiority over females, and strong family mores governed female behavior. Women's activities were largely confined to the home, and strict rules limited their public behavior, including access to education and outside employment. Formal rituals of courting, chaperonage, and arranged marriages strictly governed relations between the sexes. Above all, protection of female chastity was critical to maintaining family honor.

Family and kin networks also guided migration patterns, directing precise village flows to specific destinations. During sojourner migrations, the work of women in home villages sustained the family well-being in Italy and allowed male workers to actively compete in the world labor market. In the United States, the extended family became an important network for relatives to seek and receive assistance. Thus, migration and settlement operated within a context of family considerations.

Attempts to transfer traditional family customs to the United States engendered considerable tension between generations. More educated and Americanized children ventured to bridge two worlds, with the individualist notions of American society often clashing with their parents' family-centered ethos. Still, strong patterns of in-marriage characterized the second generation, and many of their parents' cultural values were successfully inculcated. These carryovers resulted in a strong attachment to neighborhoods and families, consistent deference to authority, and blue-collar work choices. The second generation, however, began to adopt American practices in terms of family life (seen, for example, in smaller family size and greater English-language usage), and the collective nature of the unit began to break down as the generations advanced.

According to the American Community Survey conducted between 2005 and 2007, there was a significant gap between Italian American men and women in terms of full-time employment. A total of 59.5 Page 515  |  Top of Articlepercent of Italian American men held full-time jobs, while only 40.5 percent of Italian American women held full-time jobs. Italian American women were almost three times more likely to be single parents than their male counterparts.

Education The peasant culture placed little value on formal instruction, seeking instead to have children contribute as soon as possible to family earnings. From the peasant perspective, education consisted primarily of passing along moral and social values through parental instruction (the term buon educat means “well-raised or behaved”). In southern Italy, formal education was seldom a means of upward mobility because public schools were not institutions of the people. They were poorly organized and supported, administered by a distrusted northern bureaucracy, and perceived as alien to the goals of family solidarity. Proverbs such as “Do not let your children become better than you” spoke to these perceptions, and high rates of illiteracy testified to their power.

These attitudes remained strong among immigrants in America, many of whom planned a quick repatriation and saw little reason to lose children's wages. Parents also worried about the individualist values taught in American public schools. The saying “America took from us our children” was a common lament. Thus, truancy rates among Italians were high, especially among girls, for whom education had always been regarded as unnecessary since tradition dictated a path of marriage, motherhood, and homemaking.

Antagonism toward schools was derived not only from culture, but also from economic need and realistic judgments about mobility possibilities. Given the constricted employment options open to immigrants (largely confined to manual, unskilled labor) and the need for family members to contribute economically, extended schooling offered few rewards. From the parental viewpoint, anything threatening the family's collective strength was dangerous. Generations frequently clashed over demands to terminate formal education and find work, turn over earnings, and otherwise assist the family financially. Prior to World War I, less than 1 percent of Italian American children were enrolled in high school.

As the second generation came of age in the 1920s and 1930s and the United States moved toward a service economy, however, education received greater acceptance. Although the children of immigrants generally remained entrenched in the working class (though frequently as skilled workers), they extended their education, often attending vocational schools, and could be found among the nation's clerks, bookkeepers, managers, and sales personnel. The economic downturn occasioned by the Depression resulted in increased educational opportunities for some immigrants due to limited job prospects.

Italian Americans were well situated in post-World War II America to take advantage of the national expansion of secondary and higher education. They hastened to enroll in GI Bill programs and in the 1950s and 1960s began to send sons and daughters to college. By the 1970s, Italian Americans averaged about twelve years of formal education; in 1991 the group slightly surpassed the national mean of 12.7 years. As of 2010, 32.2 percent of Italian Americans over age twenty-five had a college degree or higher, compared to the national average of 29.9 percent.

Philanthropy The philanthropic activity of Italian Americans has focused primarily on its own community by promoting Italian studies, Italian American studies, and language study. Philanthropists such as Joseph and Elda Coccia have made generations donations to establish libraries and have endowed chairs and centers of study, while the Columbus Citizens Foundation, the Order of Columbus, and the NIAF have provided grants for younger Italian Americans as well as adult learners to study language and culture. One of the notable exceptions is the Golisano Foundation, established in 1985, which provides grants to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families and has invested in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Since the late 1990s, the foundation has donated more than $200 million toward charitable causes.


Throughout the years of mass migration, Italians clustered heavily in the ranks of unskilled, manual laborers. In part, this seems to have been due to cultural preference—men favored outdoor jobs dovetailing old-world skills—and immigrant strategies that sought readily available employment in order for the men to return quickly to Italy with money in their pockets. But they were also relegated to such work by American employers who regarded Italians as unsuited for indoor work or heavy industry. Immigrants thus frequently engaged in seasonal work on construction sites and railroads, in mines, and on public works projects. Male employment often operated under the “boss system,” in which countrymen (padroni) served as middlemen between groups of immigrant workers and American employers. Married women generally worked at home, either concentrating on family tasks or other home-based jobs such as keeping boarders, attending to industrial homework, or assisting in family-run stores. In larger urban centers, unmarried women worked outside the home in factories that manufactures garments, artificial flowers, or costume jewelry, and in sweatshops and canneries, often laboring together in all-Italian groups.

Some Little Italies were large enough to support a full economic structure of their own. In these locations, small import stores, shops, restaurants, fish merchants, and flower traders proliferated, offering opportunities for upward mobility within the ethnic enclave. In many cities, Italians dominated certain urban trades such as fruit and

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Italian immigrant laborers pose during construction of the New Troy, Rensselaer & Pittsfield Electric Railway in Lebanon Valley, New York. Italian immigrant laborers pose during construction of the New Troy, Rensselaer & Pittsfield Electric Railway in Lebanon Valley, New York. MICHAEL MASLAN HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHS / CORBIS

vegetable peddling, confectioniering, rag picking, shoe-shining, ice-cream vending, and stevedoring. A portion of the immigrants were skilled artisans who typically replicated their old-world crafts of shoemaking and repairing, tailoring, carpentry, and barbering.

The dense concentration of Italian Americans in blue-collar occupations persisted into the second generation, deriving from deliberate career choices, negative attitudes toward formal education, and the economic dynamics of the nation. Italians had begun to make advances out of the unskilled ranks during the prosperous 1920s, but many gains were overshadowed during the Great Depression. Partially in response to these conditions, Italians—both men and women—moved heavily into organized labor during the 1930s, finding the CIO industrial unions especially attractive. Union memberships among Italian Americans rose significantly; by 1937, the AFL International Ladies Garment Workers Union (with vice president Luigi Antonini) counted nearly 100,000 Italian members in the New York City area alone. At the same time, women were becoming a presence in service and clerical positions.

The occupational choices of Italian Americans shifted radically after World War II, when structural changes in the American economy facilitated openings in more white-collar occupations. Italian Americans were strategically situated to take advantage of these economic shifts, being clustered in the urban areas where economic expansion took place and ready to move into higher education. Since the 1960s, Italian Americans have become solidly grounded in the middle-class, managerial, and professional ranks. As a group, by 1991 they had equaled or surpassed national averages in income and occupational prestige. In 2010, 39.2 percent of Italian Americans were in professional or managerial positions, as compared to the national average of 36.6 percent. The average income for Italian Americans was also slightly higher than the national average.


Italians were slow to take part in the American political process. Due to the temporary nature of early migration, few took the time to achieve naturalization in order to vote. Antigovernment attitudes, exemplified in the ladro governo (“the government as thief”) outlook, also limited participation. Hence, Italian voters did not initially translate into political clout. Early political activity took place at the urban machine level, where immigrants commonly encountered Irish Democratic bosses offering favors in return for support, but often blocking out aspiring Italian politicians. In such cities, those Italians seeking office frequently drifted to the Republican Party.

Naturalization rates increased during the 1920s, but the next decade was marked by a political water-shed. During the 1930s, Italian Americans joined the Democratic New Deal coalition, many, in doing so, becoming politically active for the first time. The careers of independent/sometime-Republican Fiorello LaGuardia and leftist Vito Marcantonio benefited from this expansion. As a concentrated urban group with strong union ties, Italians constituted an important component of President Franklin Roosevelt's national support. The Democratic hold on Italians was somewhat shaken by Roosevelt's “dagger in the back” speech condemning Italy's attack on France in 1940, but, overall, the group maintained its strong commitment to the Party. In the early 1970s, only 17 percent of Italian Americans were registered Republicans (45 percent were registered Democrats), although many began to vote Republican in later presidential elections. Both President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush were supported by strong Italian American majorities. Overall, the group has moved from the left toward the political center. By 1991, Italian American voter registration was 35 percent Republican and 32 percent Democratic.

The political ascent of Italian Americans came after World War II with the maturation of the second and third generations, the acquisition of increased education and greater wealth, and a higher level of acceptance by the wider society. Italian Americans were well-represented in city and state offices and had begun to penetrate the middle ranks of the federal government, especially the judicial system. By the 1970s and 1980s, there were Italian American cabinet members, governors, federal judges, and state legislators. Only four Italian Americans sat in Congress during the 1930s, but more than thirty served in the 1980s; in 1987 there were three Italian American U.S. senators. The candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro for the Democratic vice presidency in 1984, the high profile of New York governor Mario Cuomo in American political discourse during the 1980s and 1990s, and the appointment of Antonin Scalia (1986) and Samuel Alito (2006) to the Supreme Court are indicative of the group's political importance. In 2000, eighty-two of the country's one thousand largest cities had Italian American mayors. Page 517  |  Top of ArticleAs of 2012, four of the two hundred members of the Italian American Congressional Delegation were U.S. senators and twenty-five were U.S. representatives of Italian ancestry. Italian American Nancy Pelosi served as speaker of the house in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007 through 2011.

Since World War II, most Italian Americans have remained largely uninvolved in—even ignorant of—the political affairs of Italy, no doubt a legacy of World War II and the earlier brush with Fascism. They have been very responsive, however, to appeals for relief assistance during periodic natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.


Italians constitute such a large and diverse group that notable individuals have appeared in virtually every aspect of American life.

Academia Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) taught courses on Italian literature at Columbia University and sponsored the first Italian opera house in Manhattan in the 1830s. Prior to becoming president of Yale University in 1977, A. Bartlett Giamatti (1938–1989) was a distinguished scholar of English and comparative literature. He resigned his presidency to become president of Major League Baseball's National League in 1986 and was named MLB commissioner three years later. Peter Sammartino (1904–1992) taught at the City College of New York and Columbia University before founding Fairleigh Dickinson University. He published fourteen books on various aspects of education.

Art Constantino Brumidi (1805–1880), a political exile from the liberal revolutions of the 1840s, became known as “the Michelangelo of the United States Capitol.” He painted the interior of the dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., from 1865 to 1866, as well as numerous other areas of the building. Ralph Fasanella (1914–1997), a self-taught primitive painter whose work has been compared to that of Grandma Moses, was grounded in his immigrant background. Frank Stella (1936–) pioneered the development of “minimal art,” involving three-dimensional “shaped” paintings and sculpture. His work has been exhibited in museums around the world.

Business Amadeo P. Giannini (1870–1949) opened a storefront bank in the Italian North Beach section of San Francisco in 1904. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake he began granting loans to residents to rebuild. Later, Giannini pioneered in branch

One of the classic Italian neighborhoods in the U.S. is San Francisco's North Beach. In this picture, the wares at a Salumeria are on display. One of the classic Italian neighborhoods in the U.S. is San Francisco's North Beach. In this picture, the wares at a Salumeria are on display. JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES

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banking and in financing the early film industry. His Bank of America eventually became the largest bank in the United States.

Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca (1924–) became president of Ford Motor Company in 1970. He left Ford after eight years to take over the ailing Chrysler Corporation, which was near bankruptcy. He rescued the company, in part through personal television ads that made his face instantly recognizable. Iacocca also spent four years as chairman of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, which supported the refurbishment of these national monuments.

Fred DeLuca (1948–) borrowed $1,000 to open his first sandwich shop at the age of seventeen. As of 2012, the creator of the Subway franchise owned 13,136 Subways in sixty-four countries and had a net worth of $3 billion.

Film, Television, and Theater Francis Ford Coppola (1939–) earned international fame as the director of The Godfather (1972), an adaptation of Mario Puzo's best-selling novel. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Among numerous other films, Coppola has made two sequels to The Godfather; the second film of this trilogy, released in 1974, also won multiple awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. His daughter, Sofia Coppola, is an acclaimed screenwriter and film director in her own right. In 2003 she became the first American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director (for Lost in Translation).

Martin Scorsese (1942–), film director and screenwriter, directed Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990), among others, all of which draw from the urban, ethnic milieu of his youth. He won the Academy Award for Best Director for 2006's The Departed (2006).

Sylvester Stallone (1946–), has gained fame as an actor, screenwriter, and director. He is perhaps best known as the title character in both Rocky (1976), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture (and spawned five sequels), and the Rambo series.

Don Ameche (1908–1993), whose career spanned several decades, performed in vaudeville, appeared on radio serials (“The Chase and Sanborn Hour”), and starred in feature films. Ameche first achieved national acclaim in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) and appeared in many films, earning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Cocoon (1985).

Ernest Borgnine (born Ermes Effron Borgnino, 1917–2012) spent his early acting career portraying villains, such as the brutal prison guard in From Here to Eternity, but captured the hearts of Americans with his sensitive portrayal of a Bronx butcher in Marty (1955), for which he won an Academy Award. Borgnine also appeared on network television as Lieutenant Commander Quintin McHale on McHale's Navy, a comedy series that ran on ABC from 1962 to 1965.

Liza Minnelli (1946–), stage, television, and motion picture actress and vocalist, won an Academy Award for Cabaret (1972), an Emmy for Liza with a Z (1972), and a Tony Award for The Act (1977).

Jay Leno (1950–) was born in New York to a Scottish mother and a first-generation Italian American father. He started a comedy troupe while a student at Emerson College. He began his career as a professional standup comedian at the age of twenty-three. In 1992, Leno replaced Johnny Carson as the host of NBC's The Tonight Show. Leno has been the host of talk shows ever since.

Rachel Ray (1968–) is Italian American on her mother's side. She grew up in New York and Cape Cod, where her family owned and managed several restaurants. Ray hosts her own daytime talk show, and she is a celebrity chef with three cooking shows on the Food Network as well as a successful author.

Law Antonin Scalia (1936–) was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Before his appointment he practiced at a law firm, taught at University of Chicago Law School, worked for the Nixon and Ford administrations, and served on the bench for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Samuel Alito (1950–) was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President George W. Bush in 2006. Prior to his appointment, he served as U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey and as a judge for the U.S. Circuit Court for the Third Circuit.

Literature Gay Talese (1932–) began his career as a reporter for the New York Times but later earned fame for his national best sellers, including The Kingdom and the Power (1969), Honor Thy Father (1971), and Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980). Talese's Unto the Sons (1992) dealt with his own family's immigrant experience.

John Ciardi (1916–1986), poet, translator, and literary critic, published more than forty books of poetry and criticism. He profoundly impacted the literary world as the longtime poetry editor of the Saturday Review. Ciardi's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy is regarded as definitive.

Pietro DiDonato (1911–1992) published the classic Italian immigrant novel, Christ in Concrete, in 1939 to critical acclaim. He also captured the immigrant experience in later works, including Three Circles of Light (1960) and Life of Mother Cabrini (1960). The poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–) captured the essence of the Beat Generation during the 1950s and 1960s. His San Francisco bookstore, City Lights Books, became a gathering place for literary activists.

Mario Puzo (1920–1999) published two critical successes, Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), prior to The Godfather in 1969, which sold more than ten million copies and reached vast audiences in its film adaptations. Helen Barolini (1925–), Page 519  |  Top of Articlepoet, essayist, and novelist, explored the experiences of Italian American women in her Umbertina (1979) and The Dream Book (1985). Don DeLillo (1936–) is a first-generation Italian American and highly acclaimed author. His novels include such works as Great Jones Street (1973), White Noise (1985), and Libra (1988).

Music and Entertainment Francis Albert “Frank” Sinatra (1915–1998) began singing with the Harry James Band in the late 1930s, moved to the Tommy Dorsey Band, and in the early 1940s became America's first teen idol, rising to stardom as a “crooner.” Moving into film, Sinatra launched a career in acting in 1946. The leader of the Rat Pack, who won an Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity in 1953, made thirty-one films, released at least eight hundred records, and participated in numerous charity affairs.

Mario Lanza (1921–1959) was a famous tenor who appeared on radio, in concert, on recordings, and in motion pictures. Vocalist and television star Perry Como (born Pierino Roland Como, 1912–2001) hosted one of America's most popular television shows in the 1950s. Frank Zappa (1940–1993), musician, vocalist, and composer, founded the influential rock group Mothers of Invention in the 1960s and was noted for his social satire and musical inventiveness.

Politics Mario Cuomo (1932–) is a first-generation Italian American. When he was a child, his family owned a store in Queens. Cuomo attended public school in New York City and received his undergraduate and law degrees from St. Johns. Following law school he clerked for a judge on the New York Court of Appeals. He gained a reputation as an outstanding attorney for his representation of clients in public housing cases. He entered the political arena when he was elected New York's secretary of state in 1975. He was the fifty-second governor of New York from 1983 to 1994, and his son, Andrew Cuomo, became the fifty-sixth governor of New York in 2011.

Fiorello LaGuardia (1882–1947) gained national fame as the three-term energetic mayor of New York City (1934–1945). Earlier, LaGuardia sat for six terms as a Republican representative in the U.S. Congress. Known as “The Little Flower,” LaGuardia earned a reputation as an incorruptible, hardworking, and humane administrator.

John O. Pastore (1907–2000) was the first Italian American to be elected a state governor (Rhode Island, 1945). Beginning in 1950, he represented that state in the U.S. Senate. Geraldine Ferraro (1935–2011) became the first American woman nominated for vice president by a major political party when she ran with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1984. Her earlier career included service as an assistant district attorney in New York and two terms in the U.S. Congress.

John J. Sirica (1904–1992), chief federal judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, presided over the Watergate trials. He was named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1973. Rudolph W. Giuliani (1944–) served for many years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and waged war against organized crime and public corruption. He served as mayor of New York City from 1994 through 2001.

Nancy Pelosi (1940–) was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1987. She served as speaker of the house from 2007 to 2011 (the first woman and the first Italian American to hold that position), and she became minority leader in 2011. As of 2013, she was the highest-ranking female politician in American history.

Religion Father Eusebio Kino (1645–1711) was a Jesuit priest who worked among the native people of Mexico and Arizona for three decades, establishing more than twenty mission churches, exploring wide areas, and introducing new methods of agriculture and animal-raising. Francesca Xavier Cabrini (1850–1917), the first American to be sainted by the Roman Catholic Church, worked with poor Italian immigrants throughout North and South America, opening schools, orphanages, hospitals, clinics, and novitiates for the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

Science and Technology Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), a refugee from Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime, is regarded as the “father of atomic energy.” Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for his identification of new radioactive elements produced by neutron bombardment. He worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II to produce the first atomic bomb, achieving the world's first self-sustaining chain reaction on December 2, 1942.

Salvador Luria (1912–1991) was a pioneer of molecular biology and genetic engineering. In 1969, while he was a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Luria was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on viruses. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909–2012) was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986 for her work in cell biology and cancer research. Emilio Segre (1905–1989), a student of Fermi, received the 1959 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the antiproton. Robert Gallo (1937–), a biomedical researcher best known for his discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the role it plays in causing AIDS, subsequently developed a blood test for HIV.

Sports Joseph “Joe” DiMaggio (1914–1999), the “Yankee Clipper,” is perhaps best-known for his fifty-six-game hitting streak in 1941. (The record still stands.) In a career spanning 1936 to 1951, DiMaggio led the New York Yankees to ten world championships and retired with a.325 lifetime batting average. He was voted the greatest living player in baseball in 1969.

At the time of his death, Vincent Lombardi (1913–1970) was the winningest coach in professional

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Italian immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, c. 1920. Italian immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, c. 1920. AKG-IMAGES / NEWSCOM

football and the personification of tenacity and commitment in American sports. As head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi led the team to numerous conference, league, and world titles during the 1960s, including two Super Bowls (1967 and 1968). Rocky Marciano (born Rocco Thomas Francis Marchegiano, 1924–1969) is boxing's only undefeated heavyweight champion. Known as the “Brockton Bomber,” Marciano won the heavyweight championship over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 and held it until he retired in 1956. Rocky Graziano (born Rocco Barbella, 1922–1990), middleweight boxing champion, is best known for his classic bouts with Tony Zale. Lawrence “Yogi” Berra (1925–), a Baseball Hall of Famer who played for the New York Yankees for seventeen years, also coached and managed several professional baseball teams, including the New York Mets and the Houston Astros.


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ICN Radio

Broadcast news, music, cultural programs and sports in Italian twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. For twenty-three years, ICN has provided Italian radio in a four-state area: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. The station is also streaming on the web at

Maria Pirraglia Suriano
475 Walnut Street
Norwood, New Jersey 07648
Phone: (201) 358-0700


Since the mid-1800s, more than two thousand Italian American newspapers have been established, representing a full range of ideological, religious, professional, and commercial interests. By 1980, about fifty newspapers were still in print. As of 2012, only one Italian-language Italian American daily paper was in print, but several print magazines and online publications were written by and for Italian Americans either in English or in both languages.

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Ambassador Magazine

Established in 1985, Ambassador is published three times a year by the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), an organization representing thousands of Italian Americans in business, government, entertainment, and education.

Don Oldenburg
Phone: (202) 939-3108

America Oggi (America Today)

Currently the only Italian-language daily newspaper in the United States, it was founded in 1989 by numerous journalists from Il Progresso Italo-Americano, an Italian-language daily newspaper in circulation from 1888 to 1988. As of 2013, it is available online.

Andrea Mantineo, Editor
Anna Letizia Soria, Web Manager
475 Walnut Street
Norwood, New Jersey 07648
Phone: (212) 268-0250
Fax: (212) 268-0379

Italian America Magazine

Full-color quarterly magazine published in English by the Order of the Sons of Italy.

Dona De Sanctis, Editor
219 E Street NE
Washington, D.C. 20002
Phone: (202) 546-8168

Italian Americana: Cultural and Historical Review

An international journal published by the University of Rhode Island's College of Continuing Education.

Carol Bonomo Albright, Editor
80 Washington Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02908
Phone: (401) 277-5306
Fax: (401) 277-5100

The Italian Tribune

Heavily illustrated journal published weekly and featuring articles by Italian American contributors.

Joan Alagna, Editor
7 North Willow Street
Suite 8C
Montclair, New Jersey 07042

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Phone: (973) 860-0101
Fax: (201) 485-8967

The Italian Voice (La Voce Italiana)

Provides regional, national, and local news coverage; published weekly in English.

Cesarina A. Earl, Editor
P.O. Box 9
Totowa, New Jersey 07511
Phone: (973) 942-5028


PRIMO magazine is a publication for and about Italian Americans featuring in-depth articles on Italian American history, heritage, neighborhoods, accomplishments, and current events. Published every ten weeks, every issue of PRIMO features articles on travel, food, and wine and reports on one or more of Italy's diverse regions.

2125 Observatory Place NW
Washington, D.C. 20007
Phone: (202) 363-3742

Sons of Italy Times

Publishes news biweekly concerning the activities of Sons of Italy lodges and the civic, professional, and charitable interests of the membership.

John B. Acchione, III, Editor
170 South Independence Mall West
Suite 718E
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106-3323
Phone: (215) 592-1713
Fax: (215) 592-9152


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American Italian Historical Association

Founded in 1966 by a group of academics as a professional organization interested in promoting basic research into the Italian American experience. The association encourages the collection and preservation of primary source materials and supports the teaching of Italian American history.

George Guida, President
209 Flagg Place
Staten Island, New York 11304

Italian American Studies (formerly Italian Cultural Exchange in the United States [ICE])

Promotes knowledge and appreciation of Italian culture among Americans.

Jim Grossman, Executive Director
27 Barrow Street
New York, New York 10014
Phone: (212) 255-0528

Italian Historical Society of America

Perpetuates Italian heritage in America and gathers historical data on Americans of Italian descent.

Dr. John J. LaCorte, Director
410 Park Avenue
Suite 1530
New York, New York 10022

The National Italian American Foundation (NIAF)

A nonprofit organization designed to promote the history, heritage, and accomplishments of Italian Americans and to foster programs advancing the interests of the Italian American community.

John Viola, Chief Operating Officer
1860 19th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
Phone: (202) 387-0600

Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA)

Established in 1905, the organization is composed of lodges located throughout the United States. It seeks to preserve and disseminate information on Italian culture and encourages the involvement of its members in all civic, charitable, patriotic, and youth activities. OSIA is committed to supporting Italian American cultural events and fighting discrimination.

Philip R. Piccigallo, Executive Director
219 E Street, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002
Phone: (202) 547-2900
Fax: (202) 546-8168


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American Italian Renaissance Foundation

Focuses on the contributions of Italian Americans in Louisiana. Its research library also includes the wide-ranging Giovanni Schiavo collection.

Joseph Maselli, Director
537 South Peters Street
New Orleans, Louisiana 70130
Phone: (504) 522-7294

The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies

Contains many documents addressing the Italian American experience in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, most notably the Leonard Covello collection. A published guide to the holdings is available.

Kim Sajet, President and CEO
1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
Phone: (215) 732-6200

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The Center for Migration Studies

Houses a vast collection of materials depicting Italian American activities. It features extensive records of Italian American Catholic parishes staffed by the Scalabrini order. The center also provides published guides to its collections.

Donald M. Kerwin, Jr., Director
27 Carmine Street
New York, New York 10014
Phone: (212) 337-3080

Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), University of Minnesota

IHRC is the nation's most important repository for research materials dealing with the Italian American experience. The center holds major documentary collections representing a wide cross section of Italian American life, numerous newspapers, and many published works. A published guide is available.

Ericka Lee, Director
Elmer L. Anderson Library
222-21st Avenue South
Suite 311
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455

The New York Public Library, Manuscripts Division

Holds many collections relevant to the Italian American experience, most notably the papers of Fiorello LaGuardia, Vito Marcantonio, Gino C. Speranza, and Carlo Tresca.

42nd Street and Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10018-2788
Phone: (212) 930-0801


Alba, Richard. Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Battistella, Graziano. Italian Americans in the '80s: A Sociodemographic Profile. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1989.

Gabaccia, Donna. “Italian American Women: A Review Essay,” Italian Americana 12, no. 1 (1993): 38–61.

Gambino, Richard. Blood of My Blood. New York: Anchor, 1975.

Gesualdi, Louis J. The Italian/American Experience: A Collection of Writings. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2012.

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Moreiale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Morreale, Ben, Robert Carola, and Leslie Caron Carola, eds. Italian Americans: The Immigrant Experience. Baltimore/Washington: Metro Books, 2008.

Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Pozzetta, George E. “From Immigrants to Ethnics: The State of Italian-American Historiography.” Journal of American Ethnic History 9, no. 1 (1989): 67–95.

Stille, Alexander. The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300100