Little Italies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Within major urban cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, “Little Italy” communities formed to provide Italian immigrants with a sense of unity and Italian nationalism that they did not have in Italy.

Many of the first Italians who immigrated to the United States landed and then settled in New York City;Italian immigrantsNew York City. However, many immigrants also populated Italian enclaves in other cities throughout the United States. Arriving in large numbers between 1880 and 1920, the Italian immigrants tended to rely on Padrone system;Italian immigrantspadrones, or more established immigrants, who helped them adjust to their new environment. However, Italian immigrants;padrone systempadrones often took advantage of illiterate newcomers by exacting heavy payments for housing and employment services.Little ItaliesIalian immigrants;Little ItaliesLittle Italies[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Little Italies[03270][cat]ETHNIC ENCLAVES;Little Italies[03270][cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;LittleItalies[03270]Ialian immigrants;Little Italies

Causes of Immigration

During the 1840’s and 1850’s, small groups of emigrants from northern Italy sought financial security in the United States. Unlike members of the later migration of southern Italians, members of this earlier group proudly identified themselves as Italians. After Italy itself was finally unified in 1870, these early Italian immigrants gloried in their newfound national identity. Southern Italians, by contrast, left Italy in great numbers after unification. For them, Italy was a nation in name only. Although the Risorgimento strengthened Italy overall, the northern provinces alone experienced its economic and political benefits. To immigrants from the southern regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, northern Italy was as foreign as America.

For southern Italians who suffered the pangs of starvation, high taxes, and dislocation under Italy’s unification government, the possibility of employment and a better place in which to live was worth the journey across the Atlantic. Thanks to cheaper and safer oceanic transatlantic transportation and the promise of riches overseas, more than five million southern Italians immigrated to the United States and countries in South America and North Africa between 1876 and 1930. Plagued with outbreaks of cholera in the Italian countryside that killed more than 55,000 people, many southern Italians left their homeland only to be turned away at the various ports of entry, the most famous being Ellis Island in New York.

The North

Although Italian immigrants suffered degradation in America from native-born residents who believed that southern Europeans were too ignorant to assimilate, the newcomers compensated for their unfriendly reception by forming their own communities in small enclaves in major American cities. Dubbed “Little Italies” in most cities, these neighborhoods were essentially transplanted Italian villages, or paesi.

After arriving in New York Harbor, Italian immigrants moved from the port to Manhattan, and then on to that island’s crime-ridden Five Points district. The immigrants soon staked their claims within the enclave. Many earned their livings as organ grinders, street performers, and rag pickers. Despite the fact that the majority of the immigrants had been farmers in their homeland, most accepted work in crowded East Coast American cities to avoid having to travel great distances inland in the unfamiliar land.

Italians who settled in New York City eventually moved beyond Manhattan’s Point to other boroughs, such as Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Some went much farther and toiled in the coal mines in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and West Virginia, while others followed the rails farther west.

Although Italians had settled in Philadelphia;Italian immigrantsPhiladelphia even before the American Revolution, they did not immigrate en masse to the United States until the 1850’s. Within fifty years, 45,000 Italians from Calabria and Sicily were making their homes in Philadelphia. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the southern Italians outnumbered their compatriots from the north. Introducing the pushcart to the local neighborhood, Italians pedaled their merchandise on the streets of the city; they opened restaurants, and made their livings as tailors and construction workers. Nonetheless, they still suffered indignities. Segregated sections were designated for Italians in movie theaters, and the filthy streets of their neighborhoods became breeding grounds of disease.

Following the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840’s, Boston;Italian immigrantsBoston, like Philadelphia, became a port of call for immigrants. Italians from Genoa, Campania, and Sicily arrivng in Boston settled first in the north end of the city, which they dominated by the time of World War I (1914-1918). Many Sicilians who had been fishermen in their native land took up fishing in Boston. As the city’s population increased, the Italian immigrants moved from its North End to the suburbs in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Significantly, New England Italians engaged in fierce rivalry with the Irish, who had already established themselves in Democratic politics. This prompted a number of Italians to gravitate toward the Republican Party, which enticed them with the promise of a full dinner pail and minor recognition–at least until Irish Democrats were willing to share their political opportunities with them.

Middle America

Following the national Panic of 1873, many southern Italians followed a general migration from New York City to Chicago;Italian immigrantsChicago to look for work and, as a result, supplanted the Irish and Swedes in Chicago’s so-called Chicago;Little Hell districtLittle Hell section. Because workers were in such demand, especially during World War I, Italians were a welcome source of cheap labor for employers. Although dreadful conditions in Little Hell predated the Italian migration, native-born Americans began identifying Italians with the area’s criminal environment. This caused many Italians to join labor unions and fight for better conditions and wages.

Mulberry Street, the heart of New York City’s Little Italy, around 1900.

(Library of Congress)

Little Italies provided Italian immigrants with familiar communities within an unfamiliar country. Although some Italians never learned to speak the English language, others acclimated easily to their new surroundings and achieved wealth in America. Because farming land was becoming more scarce, many Italians who immigrated to America had no choice but to settle in the cities. They also migrated to the South and West Coast, earning notoriety and profiting by operating Wine industry;Italian immigrantswineries in San Francisco;Little ItalySan Francisco’s Little Italy and fisheries in San Diego. Establishing colonies throughout the United States, from Providence, Rhode Island to New Orleans, Louisiana, the Italians made significant contributions to American culture.Little ItaliesIalian immigrants;Little Italies

Further Reading
  • Barkan, Elliott Robert. From all Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870’s-1952. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Excellent source on Little Italies in the West.
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard, and David M. Reimers. Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration. 4th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Textbook that provides an excellent outline on the trends of migration in the United States.
  • Iorizzo, Luciano J., and Salvatore Mondello. The Italian Americans. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Concise narrative of the Italian American experience.
  • Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian-American Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992. Informative study of Italian immigration and Italian contributions to American culture and government.


Criminal immigrants

Ethnic enclaves

Godfather trilogy

Italian American press

Italian immigrants


New York City


Rhode Island

Categories: History