Chicago Heights, Illinois

Click here to access the story of the "Suburban Italians: Chicago Heights, 1890-1975", also written by Dominic Candeloro

Jobs attracted Italians to Chicago Heights
Sunday, March 28, 1999
By Dominic Candeloro

In 1979, I discovered a real gold mine of information about Chicago Heights' Italian immigration in the files of the Chicago Heights Public Library.

Executive Librarian Barbara Paul had heroically managed to save from destruction the citizenship records of the local courts. My study of 1,448 applications for citizenship filed by Italians in Chicago Heights between 1907 and 1954 reveals that the earliest Italians who came to Chicago Heights arrived in the 1890s, with the majority arriving between 1900 and 1914.

The national peak for Italian immigration was 1907, the Chicago Heights migration peaked in 1913 when 218, or 15 percent of the people in the sample, arrived. Some 90 percent of this population had arrived by 1924, the year that quota restrictions went into effect.

Most Italians arrived before World War I began. They produced a large second generation of Italian-Americans, who came to adulthood about the time of World War II.

In nearly all the literature concerning Italian-Americans, much is made of the concept of campanilismo, the parochialism or sense of place that made an Italian's town or region of birth the most important factor in the relationship among immigrants in this country. The regionalism of Italy, the dialects and different customs, helped to shape the occupational and residential patterns adopted by the newcomers.

Six major towns in Italy contributed immigrants to the Heights: San Benedetto del Tronto, which claimed 216 (15 percent); Montepradone, a nearby town, which was listed as the birthplace of 143 (10 percent) of the sample; Amaseno, a sleepy village near Rome, which contributed an even 100 (7 percent); the Sicilian town of Caccamo near Termini Immerese, which sent 97 of its finest to Chicago Heights; Villetta Barrea, the town of origin of 78 (5 percent); and Castel di Sangro, which sent 67 (5 percent). Thus Chicago Heights Italians were strongly Marchegiana, from the San Benedetto area, with an admixture of Sicilians, Abruzzesi, and Laziale.

Italians moved into several neighborhoods in Chicago Heights, with 53 percent settling on the East Side, a multiethnic and biracial section convenient to the factories and steel mills. Since the 1950s, however, the East Side has lost most of its European ethnic population and has become heavily black.

Almost half of the Italians in Chicago Heights lived in the Hill area. The highest hill in the neighborhood was chosen as the site for the Italian Catholic Church, San Rocco. This area was multiethnic but contained a heavier percentage of Italians than did the East Side, and virtually no blacks. Today, the Hill continues to have an important Italian population, a majority contingent of Mexican-Americans, and a small number of Slovaks and blacks.

Italians in Chicago Heights stuck together according to their towns of origin. Amasenese lived in the Hill area. Immigrants from Caccamo preferred the East Side. The progeny of San Benedetto seemed to distribute themselves more evenly than did any of the other groups, with 35 percent on the Hill, 57 percent on the East Side and 8 percent on the West Side. Newcomers from Montepradone, a town quite close to San Benedetto, had an 89 percent concentration of their members living on the East Side.

Town of birth also seemed to influence or correlate with the rate at which respondents went into business. Sicilians were overrepresented among saloon keepers, grocers, and merchants. The San Benedettans were proportionally represented in most occupations, and the Amasenese were not represented at all among saloon keepers.

The continued influence of campanilismo on subsequent generations suggests the strong influence of very localized ethnic, as well as class, factors on the culture of Chicago Heights Italians. Italians' occupations in the early years clustered around railroad workers and steel workers. A large number, including women and children, worked as field hands in the onion fields of South Holland.

After 1910, with the establishment of a half-dozen country clubs in the Flossmoor area (two miles to the north), Italian boys and young men had the option of working as caddies at Flossmoor Country Club. Olympia Fields, Idlewild and others.

The most important employers of Italians in the pre-1920 period were Inland Steel Co., the National Brick Co. and Canady-Otto Machine Tools. Industrial accidents were not uncommon. Oral history sources have no trouble recalling - and accounts in The Star confirm - frequent deaths of Italian workers in construction, at the brickyards and on the railroad.

Of the 300 or so Italians listed in the 1900 census, some half-dozen were corner saloon keepers. Dominic and Victor Pandolfi, Tony Long, Leo Vellino and Rocco Castabello (Castabile) had places on 22nd Street, while Peter Cassaza and Mike Rich ran taverns on the East Side's 17th Street. A handful of Italian-born people were listed as barbers. Dominick Napoli of the Marchegiani neighborhood on Hanover Street, reputed to be one of the first Marchegiani immigrants (1894) to the city, owned a grocery store. A Cacamesi, Nick Pagoria, had a similar establishment on Lower Avenue. Joseph Sinopoli, a Calabrian, began his grocery business in 1900 near Portland Avenue and 26th Street, next door to his residence. He mixed sausage-making with Republican precinct work; both paid off, since he established a sound business (still run today by his descendants) and attained the office of city sealer in 1914. He also taught many young men the art of meat-cutting.

Another early success story was that of Gaetano D'Amico, who arrived in the United States in 1889 from Castel Di Sangro. After working on the railroad in Missouri, he moved to Chicago in 1892, then to Chicago Heights in 1895. Seven years later, his family opened a grocery store in the heart of the 22nd Street commercial district, while he continued to work at Inland Steel.

The success of this business brought capital, which the family invested in a macaroni business at 17th and Lowe. "Mamma Mia" brand spaghetti products, bearing the picture of D'Amico's wife, Giacinta, sold well, and the company expanded into a larger factory in Steger. Thus the Italian community already had some small and growing business people among its numbers by 1914.

By 1910, the number of Italian people in the city had increased from about 300 to 3,224, of the town's 15,000 population. This increase set the stage for the development of ethnic social institutions. Most prominent was the founding of San Rocco Church in 1906 under the pastorship of Pasquale Renzullo.

Protestantism also played an important role in the Chicago Heights Italian community. In 1910, the First Presbyterian Church appointed the Rev. Eugenio De Luca to make a pitch for support within the Italian community by founding the Church of Our Savior. Although it was accorded a good deal of favorable publicity by The Star, the Church of Our Savior never represented more than 7 percent of the Italians in the city.

Thus, in the first decade of the century, Italians had established a sizable beach head in Chicago Heights. From this core, over the next four generations, the group would grow and flourish to a point in the 1980s when they were perhaps the most politically and socially influential group in the city.

Dominic Candeloro's full study of Italians in Chicago Heights is available on his Web site - type "Dominic Candeloro" at the Alta Vista search engine. It is also available as a chapter in the 1980s editions of "Ethnic Chicago," edited by Melvin Holli and Peter Jones.