“And They Came to Chicago: The Italian Legacy”—a film by Gia Amella is available on You Tube

The complete 80 minute version of ATCTC is available on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqeikaWQCyo .

And They Came to Chicago traces the 150-year history of Italians settlement in Chicago, from early arrivals who laid the foundation for burgeoning Italian enclaves to the Italian American contribution to politics and labor, the arts and culture. Combining rare historical footage and photographs, interviews with prominent Italian Americans, authors, historians, and individuals who came of age in Chicago’s Little Italies, And They Came To Chicago journeys to the heart of one of the city’s most vibrant, and misunderstood, communities for an unforgettable look at Chicago’s Italian American legacy.

Though a handful of Northern Italian adventurers settled in the Midwest before the Revolutionary War, the first notable Italian presence in Illinois dates back to the 1850s, when Italian enclaves gradually formed around the state where there was promise of steady work. It was rough-and-tumble spirit of a growing metropolis that brought the majority of new arrivals to Chicago, the Midwest’s leading center of industry and commerce and home to one of the fastest growing Italian communites in the nation. While the city’s first Italian settlers hailed primarily from the North, the majority of Chicago’s Italians trace their ancestry to Southern Italy and Sicily, the Mezzogiorno. Mass immigration in the late 19th century pushed their numbers into the thousands and by 1920–just a few years before restrictive immigration laws were enacted–60,000 Italians called the city home, the third largest Italian population after New York and Philadelphia. Today, more than half a million Italian Americans live in greater Chicago, with Illinois ranking seventh among states with the largest Italian Americans populations.

The extraordinary accomplishments of Chicago’s Italian Americans have long overshadowed the hardships their ancestors endured early on. Among famous and unsung figures profiled include popular radio broadcaster Amabile Peguri Santacaterina; Frank Annunzio, Chicago’s leading Italian American congressman who helped make Columbus Day a national holiday; labor leader James Petrillo, a sewer digger’s son who became most powerful figures in the entertainment industry; Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who found a new home at the University of Chicago after fleeing Fascist Italy; Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American to achieve sainthood; and Ron Turano, the first American elected to the Italian Senate.

Success, though, had its price. The sting of deep-seated prejudices lingered for generations even as thousands of Italian Americans marched off to war. And while they gradually attained visibility at every level of society, perhaps more than any other ethnic group, Italian Americans continue to combat a negative public image. In Chicago especially, Italian identity, criminality and violence were synonymous in the public’s imagination a generation before gangster life became the media’s cash cow.

Through it all—the anti-immigrant backlash, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, the Great Depression and global conflict—Chicago’s Italian enclaves remained the bedrock of social life for several generations of Italian Americans. More than a dozen of Little Italies formed across Chicagoland as successive waves of immigrants followed their compatriots to America. Taylor Street on the Near West Side, the city’s largest enclave of mostly Southern Italians before the University of Illinois claimed much of the neighborhood. 24th & Oakley, first settled by Tuscan immigrants before 1920 and possibly the best-preserved Italian neighborhood. Little Sicily on the Near North Side, once home to 20,000 Sicilians, and the western suburb of Melrose Park, where the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was born in 1894. Chicago Heights and Roseland to the South, Highwood and Highland Park to the North. Elmwood Park and Grand & Harlem, where Italian Americans put down deep roots. And finally, Grand & Ogden, Bridgeport and Chinatown, once-thriving Italian neighborhoods that yielded to newcomers as Italian Americans gained greater economic mobility.

2007 documentary on the history of Italians in Chicago by Gia Amella appeared in WTTW and WMAQ-TV.  Italic Institue President, Bill Dal Cerro originated the project  when he persuaded WTTW to back the production of the documentary.

2007 documentary on the history of Italians in Chicago by Gia Amella appeared in WTTW and WMAQ-TV. Italic Institue President, Bill Dal Cerro originated the project when he persuaded WTTW to back the production of the documentary.