January 21, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s a bustling Thursday afternoon at the Sons of Italy hall on South 10th Street. The hum of conversation is punctuated by greetings from the regulars, and by 11:15 a.m. the hall is near capacity. Downtown business professionals mix elbows with construction workers at family-style tables. During campaign season, the Thursday lunch draws politicians like flies to honey—make that cannoli.

They are all here for the traditional Italian fare served up with a genuine smile and occasional wise-guy crack. Today’s menu: spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and fresh bread. Quintessential Italian but far from ordinary. The sauce has been simmering for over 24 hours, its seasonings taking on a richer, more complex flavor, just like the neighborhood. The troupe of volunteer cooks never work off a recipe. Rather, the sauce is a happy combination of a few family recipes adapted over the years. Over 240 gallons are made for these Thursday lunches, a tradition that dates back 50-plus years. The men have cut over 200 pounds of lettuce for the salads and hand-rolled 2,000 meatballs. And if the early crowd is any indication of the late lunch numbers, they will need every morsel of this copious amount of food.

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The Sons of Italy is not much to look at from the outside. The only nod to its Italian heritage is the green, white, and red striped awning over the front door. But once inside, the hearty aroma of tomato sauce, the cheery red and white checked tablecloths, and ever-present laughter make you feel like you’ve walked into an Italian family reunion.

“It’s like coming home to Nana’s kitchen,” says Rich Mengler, who has been working the Sons of Italy lunches for 14 years. “I’m the kid here,” the 77-year-old quips. And if the name Mengler sounds more German than Italian, it is. “I’m an IBM,” he jokes, “Italian by Marriage.”

 Settlement Days

The first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha in 1893. The railroads, stockyards, and meatpacking plants provided the promise of work. Most came from Sicily—in particular, Carlentini—and settled in the area bounded by Pacific and Bancroft streets to the north and south, respectively, and from the river to 13th Street. They built businesses and wrote to family in Italy to come to the American Plains’ burgeoning Italian community.

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By the time immigration from southern  and eastern Europe was cut off, more than  5,000 Italians called Little Italy home. “It was almost like a separate small town” within the larger city of Omaha, says Mike DiGiacomo, member of the Santa Lucia Festival committee and trumpet player in its marching band.

Ties to the old country were strong, so strong that residents turned to their heritage to stave homesickness for Sicily. In 1925, Little Italy residents hosted the first Santa Lucia Festival, a New World version of the centuries-old festival held each year in Carlentini. They managed to raise an astounding $2,000 to replicate the statue of St. Lucy in Sicily for use in the Omaha festival.

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The Santa Lucia Festival gradually evolved into a three-day party, including Mass at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, a parade down 10th Street, music, rides, games, food, and the crowning of a queen at Lewis and Clark Landing. It is one of the Midwest’s oldest festivals, running continuously for 90 years, save the four years of World War II.

DiGiacomo says tradition and heritage have kept the festival afloat: “While many of these types of festivals have died off, the Santa Lucia Italian Festival has continued to defy the odds. The people who grew up with it, who are part of it, are so dedicated to St. Lucy and what the festival stands for. This festival is what gives the city character, a sense of community.”

 New Development with a Historic Foundation

The passing of time brings change. It’s inevitable. One of the neighborhood’s revered institutions, Caniglia’s, closed its doors in 2006. And when Frank Marino decided to finally retire at 80 and close the 13th Street grocery store his father had started 88 years prior, people lined up to buy the last of his homemade Italian sausages and ravioli.

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But there is also continuity in Little Italy. Orsi’s Bakery, at 7th and Pacific, is still going strong. Owner Jim Hall spent much of his childhood at the bakery. His Little League coach was a driver for Orsi’s, so Hall would help him make deliveries on the weekends. In 2010 Hall purchased Orsi’s with his wife, Kathy. “It has such a longstanding history. I didn’t want to see it close,” he explains rather matter-of-factly.

Orsi’s offers a variety of Italian meats, homemade Italian sausages, pastas, and olive oils, but bread from old Orsi recipes is the foundation of the business. Pizza is take-out only, or as old Mr. Orsi used to say, “Get it and hit it.”

Hall now sees a revitalization of Little Italy. DiGiacomo concurs: “While there was a feeling that the neighborhood was deteriorating in the late ’80s and ’90s, that feeling is no longer present. Recent development has helped the neighborhood grow again and redevelop that sense of community.”

The Santa Lucia Hall is under renovation. Out of the ashes of Caniglia’s Steak House has risen a community of town homes called The Towns, developed by Bluestone Development. Its clapboard exterior recalls the siding popular with most of Little Italy single-family dwellings. Driveway names like Lucia and Caniglia Plaza acknowledge the neighborhood’s heritage. Twenty-something urbanites gravitate toward Bluestone’s apartment complex at 8th and Pacific.

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The neighborhood’s price point and feel are appealing, says Bluestone’s Christian Christensen. “The vibe of Little Italy is very connected,” he says. “It’s a longstanding neighborhood and eclectic with 25 to 55 year-olds hanging out together.”

To wit: Fork Fest, a neighborhood festival centering on music, a bocce ball tournament and scavenger hunt, camaraderie, and food (of course). Andrew Marinkovich is one of Fork Fest’s founders. Its success, he asserts, is a communal effort. “You become part of the neighborhood’s fabric” when you move there, Marinkovich says. “You are so close to everyone, you are forced to interact.”

A tight-knit, historic neighborhood is what Michael Giambelluca and his wife, Donnamaria, were seeking when the couple relocated to Omaha this past summer after Michael accepted a job as Creighton Preparatory School’s new president. “Little Italy still seems to have that old-fashioned neighborhood feel that Donnamaria and I had growing up in our own respective areas of New Orleans,” he says. “People know each other and look out for each other. And people have a real pride in the place, that it has deep roots, and wonderful tradition.”

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