In the 1800s, Italy was not the picturesque country it is now. Centuries of socioeconomic division and internal strife between regions left the country torn and fractured. Civil wars during the process of national unification created widespread poverty and death. Having essentially no central government, the economy collapsed. Natural disasters and numerous cholera outbreaks in the 1890’s left Italians destitute and struggling to survive1.
With the land they called home for countless generations no longer able to support their families, all hope seemed lost, until word of a Utopia across the sea began to emerge. Tales of cornhusks the size of buggies and rivers flushed with milk filled the dreams of Italians looking to provide a better life for their families. Thus, the mass immigration of the early 20th century was born2.
Between 1900 and 1915, over three million Italians left their homes and made their way to America in the “new migration.” While approximately fifty percent of Italian immigrants were sojourners, looking to make money rather than assimilate, the rest planted their flags in such cities as New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Denver1.
“Little Italy’s” began popping up all over the country. What made Chicago special was the diversity of its Italian immigrants. Much like America’s history of division between North and South, Italy too had its share of prejudice between provinces. The Italian communities of New York and New Orleans consisted of mostly Sicilians and other southern states. Chicago’s Little Italy on Taylor Street began housing immigrants from Calabria, Sicily, Marche, Abruzzo, Basilicata, Toscana, Lombardia and Romagna. The old preconceptions of separation fell to the wayside as Italian Americans embraced one another and their cultural affinities.
Italians had three primary philosophies about life; honor the church, provide and love your family, and work hard to the best of your ability. In the eyes of the Italian community, you were judged not on how much money you made, but on how hard you worked. As the decades passed Italians fought alongside their new American brothers and sisters in both World Wars, suffered together during the influenza outbreak of 1918, and endured the hardships of the Great Depression. Upon gaining hard-earned respect and acceptance from the country they now called home, Italians began marrying and creating families, and the new Italian-American generation emerged2.
These new Americans, steeped in their Italian heritage congregated on Taylor Street on the near west side of Chicago. They erected foundations and establishments to support their ever-growing community. Churches, schools and social clubs were pillars of Chicago’s Little Italy. Our Lady of Pompeii Church, founded in 1892, is Chicago’s oldest Italian-American church in continuous use. The Hull House provided a source of education for young Italian-Americans, while social clubs like the Knights of Capri allowed for recreational activities outside of work and school3.
Taylor Street’s Little Italy blossomed. Italian-Americans were hard at work contributing to the growth of Chicago. Many found work laboring at metal and textile factories. Others worked on the railways to bring a reliable source of transportation to the city. Their contributions to society were magnificent and immense. The Italian-American enclave around Taylor Street added to their already substantive presence in Chicago and accentuated their desire to preserve their Italian heritage.
Hundreds of family run businesses began popping up. None more recognizable than the Italian restaurant. The special Italian dishes with variations by regional cuisines made Little Italy on Taylor Street the place to see and to be seen at. Restaurants like Pompei (1909) and Al’s Italian Beef (1938) flooded the tastebuds of the Chicagoland area. On a hot day nothing beats a cold Italian Ice from Mario’s Italian Lemonade (1954).
For years, it seemed life in Little Italy on Taylor Street would never change. However, much like every great institution must inevitably change, so too did this small neighborhood in Chicago. In 1941, the Illinois Medical District was created. Through the legal process known as “eminent domain”, the state of Illinois acquired land surrounding the one existing medical building and began the expansion of the medical complex. In 1956, the government took more land to establish the Eisenhower Expressway. By the 1960s, the eastern part of the neighborhood was leveled to make way for the growth of the University of Illinois – Chicago Circle Campus. More than 1,900 families were displaced, 630 businesses were closed, and Holy Guardian Church and School were razed.
The people of Taylor Street suffered immense loss. Much like their Italian ancestors who came to America for a better life, they did not let this hardship define them. Instead, they consistently look to celebrate their heritage, hosting annual heritage festivals on Taylor Street. Many businesses including the Pompei restaurant endure to this day and offer a look into the vibrancy of the past. Having lost a significant part of the area that generations of Italian-Americans called home, many settled in other parts of the city as well as the surrounding suburbs. Chicago is third in American cities for most Italian-American residents. In 1978, the National Italian-American Sports Hall Of Fame was founded. All of these institutions and smaller Italian neighborhoods have some connection to the Taylor Street experience.
If one were to visit Little Italy now, they would see a diversity that truly defines modern America. People of every race and religion walking side by side down Taylor Street. A sign welcoming you to Little Italy telling you it is time to Mangia. Restaurants and stores selling food and goods inspired by the owner’s country of origin. The scent of Asian, Indian, African, even American cuisine linger in the air of the city streets. However, this is not a loss of Italian heritage. Pompei, Al’s Italian Beef and Mario’s Lemonade all still reside on this small strip in Chicago. For this is what Little Italy on Taylor Street best epitomizes. As best stated in the Catrambone Family Memorial Park, dedicated to the ancestors who came to America for a better life, “to all immigrants who call the neighborhood home,” you can find a place in Little Italy to call your own3.
1. Kraut A. The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in America Society, 1880-1921. 2nd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell; 2001.
2. Brokaw T. The Greatest Generation. New York; Random House; 2001
3. Catrambone K. & Shubart E. Taylor Street: Chicago’s Little Italy (Images of America), Charlston, Arcadia Publishing; 2007.