The Southern California Italian American experience differs in many respects from Italian American culture in other parts of the nation, and therefore represents a unique chapter of the diaspora. Southern California’s Italian American community bears the imprint of the region’s physical and cultural geography, which provided greater opportunities for self-expression and inclusivity than elsewhere in the country, where the confines of social class, ethnicity, neighborhood, and gender, were more entrenched.
Italy has a unique religious heritage. For centuries, it has been home to people of diverse faiths, including Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims. Spanning more than two thousand years, the history of Judaism in Italy predates the Christian Roman period. Vatican City, the center of the Catholic world, is located in Rome, Italy’s capital, which inextricably connects Christianity to Italian society. Today, the vast majority of Italians and Italian Americans identify themselves with the Christian faith, specifically with Roman Catholicism.
Throughout history, however, Catholicism has not been practiced or experienced in the same way across Italy. In Northern Italy, religion centered on the parish and clergy, whereas in Southern Italy, local saints, family, and village networks served as focal points. Italian folk Catholicism encompasses a syncretic mix of pagan and Catholic elements. In southern Italy, remnants of the Greek, Byzantine, and Arabic cultures that once dominated the region are particularly apparent. Pictured here, the celebration of the Madonna che Scappa, (the Madonna that Runs) in Sulmona, Sicily, reenacts the moment when Mary sees her resurrected son, Jesus, for the first time and runs to meet him.
In the 1930s, immigrants from Puglia, Italy, commissioned a statue of the Madonna Di Costantinopoli, the patron saint of Bitritto, Puglia. On the saint’s feast day, which has been celebrated in Los Angeles since 1936, the statue of the Madonna holding the Christ Child is placed on a platform and carried through the streets surrounding St. Peter’s Italian Church. The hand-painted statue, which still stands in the church, was originally dressed in these silk and brocade hand-embroidered vestments.
Made possible by a loan from the Madonna di Costantinopoli Society
Papal authority was largely absent in many rural Italian towns, especially in the country’s south. Villagers practiced a form of Catholicism that differed from the official church doctrine, which was often a source of conflict between the church and the populace. Italians embraced a worldview of an animated universe, containing a pantheon of saints, spirits, angels, and demons.
For many, miraculous intercession, in which a sacred figure provides assistance during a time of need, is a deeply held conviction. Thousands of miraculous images exist throughout Italy, the majority of which depict a Madonna, the mother of Christ, or the Madonna and Christ Child, and sometimes a saint. Because the sacred figures are specific to a particular town, they encourage the personalization and localization of faith. The prevalence of the Madonna indicates the revered status of mothers in Italian society, and a vestige of the goddesses that were prevalent in pre-Christian religions.
Many Italian saint day festivals, traditional mourning rituals, and superstitions such as the malocchio, or evil eye, a curse believed to be cast by a malevolent glare, have pre-Christian roots. The tarantella, a Southern Italian folk dance, descends from tarantism, the belief that a bite from a particular spider produced hysterical behavior in its victim. To expel the spider’s venom, the victim, usually a woman, performed a frenzied, ecstatic dance. This musical form of exorcism can be traced to at least 1100 BCE.
Most Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1890 and 1950 came from Italy’s southern regions. The anti-Catholic sentiments of the time made Italians the subject of scorn in the predominantly Protestant nation, which perceived the immigrants’ folkways as backward and fueled by ignorance. Italian immigrants also experienced hostility in the Catholic Church, which was largely led by Irish clergy. In many parts of the country, Italians were relegated to worshiping in church basements before building their own parishes.
In Southern California, a region deeply influenced by its Mexican and Spanish roots, Italian immigrants encountered a style of Catholicism that was rich in pageantry and iconography and was instantly welcoming. Many Italian Catholics gathered at Our Lady Queen of Angels at the Plaza, which offered services in Spanish, Italian, and English. Others worshipped at Mary Star of the Sea, established in 1889 and known as the “fisherman’s parish.”
Dressed in this christening gown, John Zucchelli was baptized on the eve of July 4, 1904. The date was symbolic for the Zucchelli, Piuma, and Lagomarsino families. After arriving in Los Angeles as humble immigrants, they had become prominent businesspeople and purchased a large ranch in Chavez Ravine. While maintaining their Italian traditions, they embraced America and the opportunities it provided.
In 1904, Los Angeles Bishop Thomas James Conaty ordered the construction of two Catholic churches to serve the rapidly growing Italian community. The first church, Saint Peter’s Italian Church, would be located in the heart of the North Broadway Italian District, on the land formerly occupied by Calvary Cemetery. The second, Immaculate Conception, was built in the predominantly Italian and Mexican neighborhood southeast of downtown Los Angeles known then as “the Eastside.”
The Italian parishes unified the community and helped preserve its religious traditions and language. For nearly a century, the Feasts of San Trifone, Madonna Della Stella, and Madonna di Constantinopoli, patron saints of Puglia, Italy, along with the Feasts of Saint Anthony and Saints Peter and Paul have been celebrated continually in Southern California.
The Sicilian Feasts of Santa Lucia and Saint Joseph also trace their history in the region to the early 1900s. During the multi-day celebration in honor of Saint Joseph, Saint Peter’s Italian Church and Mary Star of the Sea create elaborate altars, or Tavole di San Giuseppe (Saint Joseph’s Tables), in honor of the Saint that contain traditional foods, candles, and flowers.
The tradition of Saint Joseph’s Tables dates to the Middle Ages, when there was a severe drought in Sicily and many died from famine and disease. The peasants are said to have requested Saint Joseph’s intercession. When rain finally arrived, an offering of food and crops was made in the saint’s honor. Commemorating the Sicilians’ triumph over hunger, all who attend Saint Joseph celebrations are fed, and charity is extended to the homeless and needy.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes, a special Christmas Eve meal, has both Italian and Italian American roots. Catholic ritual maintains that, in anticipation of Jesus’ birth, Christmas Eve is a time for fasting and abstinence from meat. In Italy, the dinner is known as la cena della Vigilia, or the Vigil dinner, and is found in regions of Italy where seafood is abundant, especially Southern Italy.
In Italian American homes, the Feast of the Seven Fishes includes from seven to as many as thirteen seafood dishes—the most popular of which is baccala, or cod. Calamari, anchovies, lobster, mussels, clams, eel, and shrimp are often part of the menu, served alone or incorporated into pasta and vegetable dishes. The significance of the number seven is widely debated. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible; there are seven sacraments in Catholicism, and seven is considered the number of completion, as described in the Book of Genesis.
Among the most noteworthy religious leaders in Southern California’s history is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, who in 1946 became the first United States citizen to be declared a saint. The youngest of thirteen children, Maria Francesca Cabrini was born in Italy in 1850 and orphaned at the age of thirteen. By age thirty, she had become a schoolteacher and the director of an orphanage. Cabrini was rejected from joining a convent because of her poor health, so she established her own order of nuns, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, before immigrating to the United States in 1889.
Mother Cabrini arrived in Los Angeles in 1905 to serve the burgeoning Italian immigrant population. She founded the Regina Coeli Orphanage on Sunset Boulevard (now Cesar Chavez) and Hill Street and a parochial school on Alpine and Hill in the heart of the Italian district. The orphanage and school served over one thousand youth.
Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants, built a larger school in Burbank, along with a preventorium, an institution for children with tuberculosis. Following Mother Cabrini’s death, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart continued her work. They established one of Los Angeles’s first day-care centers, the Mother Cabrini Day Home, which provided free childcare for hundreds of working families. In her lifetime, Cabrini established sixty-seven schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the world.
This Gothic-style ostensorium, a vessel utilized for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in Roman Catholicism, was used in liturgical services at the Villa Cabrini Academy Chapel in Burbank, California and in the annual pilgrimages in honor of Saint Cabrini from 1940 to 1970.
Made possible by a loan from the Mother Cabrini Chapel and Library-Italian Catholic Federation
Though all cultures value family, the family unit occupies a particularly revered place in Italian and Italian American culture. Located at the center of the Mediterranean trading routes, the country now known as Italy has a long and tumultuous history. During the country’s centuries of occupation and domination by other peoples, the family emerged as the foremost social structure and cohesive force.
For much of history, Italy’s provinces existed as separate states, with different cultures, languages, and experiences. Even after Italy became a unified nation in 1861, the differences between and among the country’s regions persisted, especially between northern Italy and southern Italy. What most Americans consider “Italian American” is not representative of Italy in its entirety. Rather, it largely refers to the people who trace their lineage to the Mezzogiorno, or the regions south of Rome, from where approximately eighty percent of Italian immigrants hailed.
The Mezzogiorno’s history of invasion and foreign rule compelled Southern Italians to be inherently suspicious of outsiders and to look to themselves, their families, and kinship groups for survival and protection. Southern Italy’s geography and the prevalence of natural disasters reinforced this practice. During the period of massive immigration to the United States, Southern Italy was a highly stratified, virtually feudal society in which families typically worked as collective units to ensure survival.
Francesca Mazzella began preparing her dowry as a young girl in Ischia, Italy. By the time she married Francesco Di Costanzo in 1955, Mazzella had created hundreds of items for her linen trousseau, including this hand-embroidered towel. By creating the material foundation for the establishment of a new generation, dowries are often seen as an expression of the value placed on family in Italian culture.
The clash of cultures between Italian immigrants and American society was tremendous. Though the Italian value system focused on the protection and preservation of the family, American values emphasized individualism, success, and independence. When Italian immigrants encountered hostility in their adopted country, they turned to their families as a defensive strategy, which reinforced the notion of Italians as insular and clannish.
Whereas the nuclear model typically defined the American family, Italian families tended to include grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Although the father or eldest male was the undisputed head, the mother also exercised great power, which has led some to describe Italian households as semi-matriarchal.
Acculturation and assimilation exerted pressure on the family. To prove one’s loyalty to the United States and access the benefits of becoming middle-class, Italian Americans often distanced themselves from their ethnicity and traditions. Feelings of displacement, alienation, and loss often accompanied the benefits of upward mobility.
The 2000 United States Census recorded over 15.7 million people who identified themselves as Italian. Although Italians are perceived to have large families, the number of children born to Italian American families mirrors the national average. Italy, meanwhile, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Nationwide, more than eighty percent of Italian Americans marry partners of different ethnicities.
Today, Los Angeles is home to the nation’s fifth largest Italian American population. Family continues to provide a strong sense of security and identity for Italian Americans, though it often transcends traditional paradigms. Italian American families in Southern California, like their counterparts elsewhere in the nation, take many forms.
For Italians, home is the symbol of family; the kitchen and the family table exist at the very center of the home. Food, cooking, and family have always been central components of Italian and Italian American culture and important aspects of identity and pride. In the United States, Italian food has evolved from a cuisine consumed solely in Italian American households to a vital component of the American diet. Pizza, for instance, has become so deeply integrated into American culture that we often forget it originated across the Atlantic.
Italian cuisine, in reality, is composed of many distinct cuisines, representing Italy’s twenty distinct regions, each possessing its own flavor palette and ingredients. The immigrants’ culinary traditions reflect the regions from which they originated and are often representative of cucina povera, or peasant cooking. Naples’ ubiquitous pasta with tomato sauce, Tuscany’s ribolita, a hearty vegetable and bread soup, and pasta e fagioli, or pasta with beans, are a few examples of cucina povera.
As immigrants adapted recipes in their new home, a hybrid cuisine was born. Cioppino, for instance, originated from the Italian fish stew ciuppin and was introduced to the United States by Genovese fishermen in San Francisco. Sicilian immigrants who arrived en masse to Louisiana in the late nineteenth century gave birth to one of New Orleans’s most iconic dishes, the muffaletta, a sandwich made on large, round loaves of bread with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone, Swiss cheese, and olive salad. The sandwich derives its name from the Sicilian word muffola, which means "mitten", and refers to the shape of the bread. No such dish exists in Italy.
Italian cuisine in the United States continued to evolve as American soldiers returned home from World War II with newly developed tastes for the foods they had encountered in Italy, such as ravioli. With the rise of the prepared food industry in the United States, “Italian” food was redefined as American creations including pizza rolls, garlic bread, and mozzarella sticks exited factories.
The growth of the Italian American restaurant industry introduced words such as "lasagna" and "antipasto" to the national vocabulary and, in doing so, infused Italian culture into mainstream America. Because the majority of Italian Americans seldom consumed Italian food in restaurants, the establishments often modified recipes to appeal to American tastes.
As agriculturalists, horticulturalists, and viticulturalists, Italian Americans have shaped the gastronomic landscape of California and the nation. Italian Americans introduced dozens of crops to the region, including the artichoke, eggplant, bell pepper, rye grass, fennel, Sicilian lemons, and blood oranges. Once considered an Italian vegetable, broccoli was made a staple on American tables by Sicilian immigrants Andrew and Stephan D’Arrigo. The D’Arrigo brothers’ Andy Boy brand also popularized cauliflower and romaine hearts, and were pioneers in the transportation of fresh produce across the country via railroad.
By 1900, California had the largest number of Italian farmers and farm laborers of any state in the nation. Ten years later, the value of California’s Italian-grown crops exceeded $60 million, the equivalent of approximately $1.5 billion today. During this era, Sicilian immigrant Joseph DiGiorgio established
S & W Fine Foods, which remains a national leader in canned fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
In the late 1800s, Marco Fontana and Antonio Cerruti, immigrants from Genoa, founded Del Monte, which became the world’s largest canning firm. Giuseppe Uddo, an immigrant from Sicily, founded Progresso Foods, which later produced the nation's first canned, ready-to-eat soup. The Mariani family began as fruit growers in the Santa Clara Valley; today, they are the largest privately owned processor of dried fruit on the planet. In Santa Barbara, Italian horticulturalist Francesco Franceschi introduced more than two hundred new plant species, more than had any other person, to the state.
The first known Italian restaurants in Southern California appeared during the mid-1800s. To attract a broad customer base, many eateries, such as Umberto Rovere’s Paris Inn, offered a combination of Italian, French, and American cuisine. The Paris Inn, located in downtown Los Angeles, featured singing waiters and was a favorite among Hollywood celebrities. Established in 1919 by partners Joseph Musso and Frank Toulet, Hollywood’s iconic Musso and Frank is credited with introducing fettuccine al fredo to the United States.
At the height of the Depression, Alexander Perino, an immigrant from Piedmont, Italy, established an upscale establishment on Wilshire Boulevard serving Franco-Italian or “continental” faire. At a time when a full meal could be purchased at most restaurants for five or ten cents, a meal at Perino cost $1.25. The restaurant, which was considered the best culinary experience in California, served everyone from President Richard Nixon and Dolores Del Rio to Fred Astaire and Benjamin “Bugsy” Segal. Perino helped popularize gnocchi and prosciutto among the Southern California public.
Pasquale “Patsy” D’Amore, who is often credited with introducing pizza to Southern California, opened the Villa Capri in Hollywood, a restaurant where the Rat Pack, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall were regulars and where James Dean practiced his Italian with the kitchen staff. In the 1950s, at Sinatra’s request, D’Amore prepared a New York steak sautéed with garlic, mushrooms, and bell peppers in a wine sauce. The dish, immortalized as “Steak Sinatra,” still appears on menus across the nation.
The Costa family began manufacturing pasta in Los Angeles’ Little Italy in 1923. The Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood was among their clients. Connie Costa accompanied her father to meetings at the restaurant, where she might catch a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe or Frank Sinatra, who celebrated his 42nd birthday there. Costa kept this napkin as a memento of Villa Capri, which closed in 1982.
In the late 1950s, Ciro Marino, the former maître d’ of Villa Capri, established Martoni’s in West Hollywood, which served Neapolitan cuisine and fed the likes of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Jackson 5, and Nat King Cole. Sony Bono, a regular at Martoni’s, purportedly wrote the song “Laugh at Me” after being ejected from the restaurant because of his “hippie” attire. Marino would later open Marino Ristorante adjacent to Paramount Studios, where he became among the first in the region to offer the caprese salad and emphasize sustainably sourced fish and organic produce.
Sicilian restaurateur Piero Selvaggio immigrated to the United States at the age of eighteen and worked as a dishwasher in New York before moving to Los Angeles. While attending college, he worked as a busboy at Chasen’s, a famous eatery frequented by Hollywood elite. On his first day, he staffed a party whose guests included actors Gary Cooper and Elizabeth Taylor. Selvaggio never imagined that Taylor would dine at his restaurant one day and consider him a friend.
In 1972, Selvaggio and a partner opened Valentino in Santa Monica, California, which, like other Italian restaurants of the era, was defined by garlic and heavy sauces. He later traveled to Italy and discovered the cuisine of the country’s various regions. With this newfound knowledge, he returned to Los Angeles, reconstructed Valentino’s menu, and became a leader of the food and wine movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Valentino is one of the few Michelin starred Italian restaurants in the region and has been recognized by Wine Spectator for having one of the ten best wine lists in the world.
Growing up in Sicily, Chef Celestino Drago learned to cook while standing alongside his mother, Maria, pictured left. From pressing olives to make olive oil to crushing grapes from their vineyards for wine, the Drago family produced nearly everything it consumed. Celestino Drago immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1970s and worked as a chef before establishing his own restaurant, Celestino, in Beverly Hills.
Additional restaurants followed, including Drago in Santa Monica, Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills, the Drago Bakery in Culver City, and the flagship Drago Centro in downtown Los Angeles. Chef Drago played an integral role in the ever-evolving Southern California food culture. He introduced Angelinos to the intense and complex flavors of Sicilian cuisine and to the concept of contemporary Italian cuisine, which incorporates modern variations into the regional dishes that have defined Italian cuisine for centuries while emphasizing fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Chef Drago also acts as a steward of the culinary patrimony of Italy, resurrecting historic recipes that have largely been forgotten. Drago, the eldest of eight children, brought several of his siblings to the United States, including Tanino, Calogero, and Giacomino, who also become acclaimed restaurateurs. Chef Drago has been touted as one of the best Italian chefs in the United States by Bon Appétit and the Los Angeles Times and has been knighted by the Italian government for his achievements.
While visiting California in 1882, Irish writer, playwright, and poet Oscar Wilde wrote, “California is an Italy without its art.” The region’s Mediterranean climate led many to embrace the idea of California as a nuova Italia, or new Italy, a theme that was promoted during the real estate boom of the 1880s. In the early 1900s, the promise of a new Mediterranean culture inspired developer Abbot Kinney to create “Venice of America” near Santa Monica, California. Although Kinney’s vision of creating an elite resort never materialized, Venice of America, known today simply as Venice, became a cultural mecca in its own right.
Kinney was not the only one. Testimony to Southern California’s love affair with Italy can be found in public art and architecture throughout the region, such as the Doheny Library on the University of Southern California campus, the historic Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles, built in the Italian Renaissance style, and Royce Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles, inspired by the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. The J. Paul Getty Villa in Malibu is a replica of a villa in Herculaneum, near Pompeii. The murals of Giovanni Smeraldi, whose work also adorns the White House, grace the interior of the Biltmore Hotel and the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.
From the indigenous cultures of California to the traditions introduced during Spanish and Mexican rule and the subsequent contributions of immigrant groups and migrants from elsewhere in the nation, California’s arts and entertainment culture has long reflected the diversity of the region’s population. Italian American artists are an integral part of this rich mosaic.
Following an argument with his father, twenty-two-year-old Baldassare Forestiere immigrated to the United States in 1902, hoping to “make America.” His dream was to create a citrus empire, and with his laborer’s wages, Forestiere purchased land in Fresno, a city in California’s Central Valley. He soon discovered that the land was unsuitable for growing citrus. Moreover, Fresno’s winters were frigid, and the summers often exceeded a sweltering 105°F. Forestiere recalled the cool underground cellars and caves from his childhood in Sicily and decided to create one on his property.
After he returned from working in the vineyards, Forestiere began digging. The underground chamber provided him relief from the heat, so Forestiere carved additional rooms, which he inhabited for longer periods. Over the next forty years, without dynamite for blasting or formal training in construction or engineering, Forestiere used his memories of Roman architecture and simple farming tools to singlehandedly excavate the hard, unforgiving earth and create a spectacular maze of nearly one hundred underground tunnels, rooms, patios, and grottoes, spread across ten acres.
Forestiere envisioned a subterranean Mediterranean resort, with fruit trees and vines. He experimented with growing citrus underground, cutting skylights into the rooms so that the trees could obtain oxygen and sunlight. The trees flourished. He also built living quarters for himself, which included two beds, a properly vented stove, a room for storing perishable foods, and another that he referred to as the “Sunrise Plaza.” Forestiere created a cistern for collecting rainwater, a chapel, an aquarium and fishpond, a communal room, and a boat-shaped planter meant to symbolize the journey of immigrants, including Forestiere, to America.
Nicknamed the “human mole,” Forestiere’s eccentric habits puzzled his neighbors. He spent most of his life alone and explained his digging as a way to relax after working all day. When Forestiere died at the age of sixty-seven, he owned more than 1,000 acres of fertile farmland and vineyards. Forestiere had “made America” and, in the process, formed a legacy greater than material wealth. Today, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a California Historic Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and are open to the public for tours.
Sabato Rodia arrived in the United States with his brother in the 1890s and worked in the coalfields of Pennsylvania. Around 1921, Rodia settled in Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, which at the time was home to a diverse community of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs. Rodia purchased a small triangular-shaped lot on East 107th Street and singlehandedly began constructing a large assemblage structure he called Nuestro Pueblo, Spanish for “Our Town.”
Over the course of thirty-three years, Rodia worked on the seventeen interconnected steel and mortar spiraling structures without the aid of scaffolding, building one level at a time, eventually reaching nearly one hundred feet high. Finding inspiration in items discarded by others, Rodia embellished the towers with 70,000 repurposed objects, including colored glass, shells, broken dishes and bottles, pottery and tile fragments, corncobs and handprints, bed frames, and automobile parts. He also built fountains, plazas, walkways, and a gazebo, all within his tiny tenth of an acre.
Like Forestiere, Rodia used simple tools and worked on his project alone. Although Rodia did not consider himself an artist and once said that the project helped keep him busy after he stopped drinking, Rodia’s signature can be found in several areas of the towers. During World War II, Rodia’s work generated suspicion; rumors circulated that the structures were used to signal the Japanese, and during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the towers were purported to communicate with Communists. In 1954, Rodia declared the structures finished, sold the property to a neighbor for $1,000, and left Watts. In the years that followed, the towers languished.
In 1959, an actor and director purchased the towers for $3,000 in an effort to preserve Rodia’s work. He learned that the City of Los Angeles had plans underway to demolish the structures after declaring them an “unauthorized public hazard,” built without a “rational plan.” As controversy raged, the city consented to a test to assess the towers’ structural integrity. The test revealed that the towers, built by one man with no engineering experience, without welding, bolts, or rivets, could withstand five tons of strain, the equivalent of sustained, 76-mile-an-hour winds. The city revoked the demolition order, and the Watts Towers later opened to the public.
Some believe that the Festa dei Gigli, a celebration in honor of the patron saint of Nola, a city near Rodia’s hometown in Italy, served as inspiration for the towers. During the festival, teams of townspeople carry massive wooden spires that span over eighty feet tall and weigh in excess of 5,500 pounds through the streets. Although his work later received prestigious accolades, Rodia had lost interest in the towers and died quietly in Martinez, California in 1965.
Today, the Watts Towers are a U.S. National Historic Landmark, part of the Simon Rodia State Historic Park and managed by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Watts Towers are considered one of Southern California’s most culturally significant public artworks and one of the nation’s finest works of folk art.
Federico “Rico” Lebrun was born in Naples, Italy, where he began his first formal training in art. He later moved to New York City and worked as a commercial artist for Vogue, The New Yorker, and other magazines. In 1936, Lebrun accepted a teaching position at the New York Art Students’ League and decided to return to fine art.
In 1938, Lebrun relocated to Southern California and received his first solo exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Many successful exhibitions followed, and Lebrun became a leading figure in Los Angeles’s modernist art movement. He was invited to teach at the Chouinard Art Institute and Walt Disney Studios.
In the late 1940s, Lebrun’s art became increasingly devoted to human suffering, social justice, and religious subjects. Over the next three years, he worked on the Crucifixion series, which culminated in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The devastating images he had seen of Nazi concentration camps led to the Buchenwald series. As Lebrun stated, the Holocaust tells the story of “man’s blindness and inhumanity.”
In 1958, Lebrun became a visiting lecturer at Yale University before he returned to Los Angeles to complete a commission for a mural at Pomona College. He selected the Book of Genesis to provide the narrative for what was to be an intensely personal, aesthetic, and political work. Painted in tones of black, the mural, titled Genesis, depicts subject matter from the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Flood. The mural’s central figure is a battered, post-flood Noah, who embraces a child protectively amid the rubble of the ark. In the background are doomed figures attempting to escape the flood. The mural is one of his most celebrated works.
As an infant, artist Joseph Mugnaini immigrated to Los Angeles and settled in Little Italy. He worked as a parking attendant to pay for his education at the Otis College of Art and Design, where he later taught printmaking in the 1970s. Mugnaini is best known as an illustrator for science fiction author Ray Bradbury. The first painting Mugnaini created for Bradbury, which depicts a grieving man dressed in newsprint and surrounded by flames, graced the cover of Bradbury's internationally acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451.
In an era when the contemporary art world was consumed with abstract expressionism and pop art, Mugnaini remained committed to a highly imaginative form of realism. His work, executed in pen, ink, and watercolor, typically included a human figure against a minimal background or Martian-like landscapes. Mugnaini illustrated subject matter in a suggestive manner, allowing the reader’s imagination to create its own visions.
This Mugnaini lithograph, titled Job 38:8, explores the theme of God’s justice in the face of human suffering. It asks the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” and refers to the Book of Job, the first poetic book of the Old Testament. God allows Job, a man of faith and piety, to be attacked by Satan. Job loses his children and material possessions yet remains faithful to God. To humble Job, God asks him a series of questions that can only be answered by the divine. Mugnaini’s work expresses the opinion that, although human choices and actions are morally significant, suffering cannot be sensibly understood as a consequence of bad choices and actions.
Made possible by a loan from Marianna and Damian Joseph Gatto
Leo Politi was born Atiglio Leoni Politi in Fresno, California. At the age of seven, Politi returned with his family to his mother’s village near Milan, where his love for drawing blossomed. When Politi was a teenager, the family relocated to London. Enchanted by the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle, Politi explored London’s museums, relishing the works of Van Gogh and other masters.
Politi received a scholarship to attend the National Art Institute in Italy and, after completing his education, decided to move to California. Traveling by boat, Politi became acquainted with Latin American society and grew enamored of Mayan culture. The rich earth tone hues became his palette throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
After arriving in Los Angeles, Politi worked as an artist on Olvera Street, sketching and painting tourists and selling his work. The commonalities between Italian and Mexican culture made Politi feel instantly welcome. Politi’s watercolors of happy and mischievous children formed the core of his professional identity. His adoration of children and deep sense of reverence for the mother-child relationship is apparent throughout his work.
Politi began illustrating magazines and books and ultimately became a children’s author. His first book, Little Pancho, the story of a naughty boy on an adventure, attracted the attention of two progressive magazines, Freedom and Script. Politi ultimately became the art editor of the latter. As World War II approached, Politi used his signature characters—Pancho, Lupita, and Rosa— to convey pacifist messages in the publications. His work proved truly avant-garde in that it predated the multicultural movement by decades.
Politi authored thirty books; among them are Moy Moy, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, and Song of the Swallows, which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. In 1977, Politi was commissioned to paint a mural, titled The Blessing of the Animals, at El Pueblo Historic Monument. Located within walking distance from the IAMLA, the mural depicts the Catholic tradition of blessing animals and pets as a remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures.
This painting, El Pueblo de Los Angeles, appeared in Politi's 1967 book The Poinsettia, which chronicles Los Angeles’ diverse holiday traditions and the sights and sounds of the city during the holiday season. The painting depicts the Mexican tradition of Las Posadas, a Christmastime procession that is celebrated at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, and it also reenacts the Holy Family’s attempt to find shelter during their journey to Bethlehem.
Made possible by a loan from the Politi family
The influx of four million Italians to American shores between 1880 and 1920 represents one of the largest migrations in the nation’s history. Although Italian American authors have provided richly varied responses to this experience, Italian American literature remains a largely ignored and overlooked genre of American literature. With the exception of ethnic newspapers, most early works by Italian American authors emerged from the East Coast and explored themes such as the journey to America and the struggles to acclimate to a culture that was often hostile.
Pietro di Donato
Pietro di Donato’s semi-autobiographical proletariat novel Christ in Concrete is considered a metaphor for the immigrant experience. Di Donato’s father died in 1923 when the building where he was working collapsed, burying him in concrete. At the age of twelve, Pietro, like the novel’s protagonist, Paul, was charged with supporting his mother and siblings during the Great Depression and struggled to reconcile his religious faith in the face of suffering and tragedy.
Di Donato and other Italian American authors of his era provided a voice for a generation of immigrants and paved the path for subsequent writers to explore such themes as the complexities and seductions of assimilation, hyphenated American ethnic identity, and generational conflict. However, only a handful of Italian American writers explored this experience as it took place in the Western United States.
Although best known as a television writer whose credits include Bonanza and Tarzan and as screenwriter of the critically acclaimed film The Sound of Fury, author Jo Pagano’s seminal novel Golden Wedding provides a rare glimpse of the Italian American experience set against a Western landscape. At the urging of the family’s matriarch, the Simone family escaped the dismal mining towns of Colorado and the ubiquitous Black Hand to settle in Los Angeles’s Italian enclave. Golden Wedding illustrates the critical role that Italian American women played in ensuring their families' upward mobility, while examining the challenges of assimilation.
As a child, John Fante wanted nothing more than to become a famous author, and he remained committed to this aspiration despite the poverty and prejudice that punctuated his youth. Fante’s father, Nicola, a bricklayer who immigrated to the United States in 1901, had a penchant for drinking. When his father abandoned the family, Fante assumed responsibility for his mother, grandmother, and three siblings. During their most challenging times, Fante accompanied his mother to the market, where she begged for expired produce.
In 1929, Fante moved to Los Angeles with the hope of becoming a writer. Fante first settled in the portside community of Wilmington, where he worked in a cannery, before moving to a residential hotel in Bunker Hill, a blighted downtown neighborhood that had previously been home to the city’s elite. Fante’s entry into the literary world came in the early 1930s when his idol, journalist H.L. Mencken, published Fante’s short story “Altar Boy.”
Wait Until Spring, Bandini, published in 1938, provided a portrait of Fante’s early life in 1920s Colorado, when Italians comprised the immigrant underclass. His masterpiece, Ask the Dust, is one of the few novels to portray the working-class immigrant experience in Depression-era Los Angeles. The semi-autobiographical novel explores themes such as alienation, Catholicism, ethnic self-image, and the obstacles that racism and nativism posed to gaining acceptance and achieving success. While Ask the Dust failed to secure a large readership at the time of its release, it ascended to The New York Times best-seller list more than sixty years later and was a major influence on writer Charles Bukowski.
In 1937, Fante married Joyce Smart, a Stanford-educated poet and editor, and the couple had four children. To provide for his family, Fante turned to screenwriting. Over the years, he worked with Hollywood luminaries such as Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and actress Jane Fonda. Although he earned a comfortable salary, Fante felt that Hollywood and the need to support his family had robbed him of his creativity. He longed to return to his roots as a novelist.
Fante was later diagnosed with diabetes, and by the 1970s, the disease had stolen his eyesight and necessitated the amputation of both legs. His inspiration lost and his books long out of print, Fante’s devastation was palpable. In 1981, Fante awoke one morning and announced that he wanted to write another book. Fante proceeded to dictate to his wife, word-for-word, what became the novel Dreams from Bunker Hill. It was a lasting testament to his gift.
Throughout his career, Joyce Fante had been her husband’s fiercest defender and advocate. She played an integral role in Fante ultimately receiving recognition and in the preservation of his work. Joyce Fante was also responsible for resurrecting The Road to Los Angeles, a novel that Fante had written in the early 1930s, and having it published posthumously.
John Fante could often be found smoking this pipe while playing cards with his wife or watching television. For those who knew him, the pipe, tucked in the corner of his mouth, and the sweet scent of tobacco smoke, became synonymous with Fante. References to pipe smoking are found in various Fante works, including Ask the Dust.
Made possible by a loan from the Fante family
Italian Americans of the Beat Movement
In post-World War II America, a cultural and literary movement emerged that altered the nation’s consciousness and led to a reappraisal of the conventional structures of society. Some of the nation’s youth began to question what they perceived as society’s rampant materialism, their parents’ conservatism, and social inequalities. The Beat Generation emerged out of this reassessment. As principal figures of the Beat movement, writers Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Gregory Corso, and Phillip Lamantia helped spark the social and political change that transformed the United States in the 1960s.
In 1953, poet, publisher, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, the first entirely paperbound bookshop in the country. Ferlinghetti aimed to make art accessible to all, and City Lights became an important gathering place for the Beat movement. After publishing Howl, the poem written by fellow Beat Generation author Allen Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti was arrested, charged with disseminating obscene literature, and later stood trial. Ferlinghetti is recognized for his engaging poetry and as an individual integral to the San Francisco literary renaissance.
Regarded as the most important female writer of the Beat Movement, poet Diane di Prima was part of a circle that included authors Jack Kerouac and Frank O’Hara, among others. Raised in a conservative Italian American family, di Prima would later document her experiences in the Beat culture in MEMOIRS OF A BEATNIK. Determined to bring a woman’s voice into a mostly male-dominated subculture, di Prima wrote frankly about sexuality, feminism, and social class. She was targeted by authorities for her radicalism and, in 1961, was arrested by the FBI on obscenity charges. Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages.
Music and dance have always composed an important part of Italian culture and folklore, and Italian Americans have played an essential role in shaping the nation’s music culture. In many cases, this legacy can be traced to Southern California. In 1897, the U.S. premiere of Giamomo Puccini’s La Bohème took place not in New York but in the lavish, 1,200-seat Los Angeles Theater in downtown Los Angeles, then leased by Charles Modini-Wood, an Illinois-born tenor of Italian and British descent.
Other noteworthy Italian artists, such as Adelina Patti, one of the most famous opera performers of the 19th century, and Milan-born Amelita Galli-Curci, considered the greatest coloratura soprano ever to have lived, also performed in Los Angeles. Although she had no formal training, by 1906, Galli-Curci was performing with renowned tenor Enrico Caruso and became one of the first female operatic stars of the phonograph. "Caro Nome", an aria that Galli-Curci performed from the Verdi opera Rigoletto, sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies in its first Chicago release alone.
On June 5, 1924, Galli-Curci performed at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, which had opened only two years earlier, to an audience of nearly 22,000. The sold-out show generated a record $25,935 in ticket sales. Galli-Curci was paid $15,000 for her performance, the equivalent of over $205,000 today, and the highest figure ever paid to a singer for a single performance at that time.
In the 1940s, African American communities in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and Los Angeles, among others, developed a genre of music that came to be known as doo wop. Built upon vocal harmony, singers in groups of three to six sang a cappella arrangements, using their voices to mimic instruments. Doo wop achieved mainstream popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s, with many Italian American groups and musicians contributing significantly to the genre.
Doo wop groups with Italian members included the Crests, the Four Seasons, the Capris, Rosie and the Originals, the Aquatones, and the DelSatins. The Penguins, an African American doo wop group known for its hit “Earth Angel,” and the multiethnic doo wop band, the Jaguars, emerged from Los Angeles’s Fremont High School.
Fremont High School in South Los Angeles was one of the first public schools in the nation to integrate its classes before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Jaguars, recognized for their rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight,” was one of the first racially integrated vocal groups of the 1950s. The Jaguars’ members included lead tenor Herman “Sonny” Chaney and bass singer Charles Middleton, who were African American; second tenor Valerio “Val” Poliuto; an Italian American, and baritone Manuel “Manny” Chavez, of Mexican American ancestry.
In 1956, Walt Disney hired Salvatore “Tutti” Camarata, a trumpet player and arranger for big band leaders Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and for artists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby, to form Disneyland Records and serve as the label’s music director. At Disney’s urging, Camarata opened Sunset Sound, a recording studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. During his sixteen years with Disney, he produced hundreds of albums, including scores for The Parent Trap, Cinderella, It’s a Small World, and The Jungle Book.
In the early 1960s, Sunset Sound became an independent recording studio, where Camarata welcomed hundreds of artists such as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Beach Boys, and Paul McCartney. In 2003, Camarata was awarded the Disney Legends Award.
In 1965, Bill Gazzarri, who would later be nicknamed the “Godfather of Rock and Roll,” opened a nightclub on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Originally named the Hollywood a Go-Go, the club featured a split-level dance floor, live music, and Italian dinners prepared by Gazzarri’s mother, Bruna. The club was later renamed Gazzarri’s and catered to the youth counterculture of the 1960s. Gazzari’s helped launch the careers of Jim Morrison and the Doors, Sonny and Cher, Buffalo Springfield, Tina Turner, Van Halen, Motley Crüe, the punk band X, Guns N' Roses, and other groups.
Among the most famous Italian American musicians to emerge from Southern California was Frank Zappa. Zappa, the son of an Italian immigrant father and an Italian American mother, was born in Baltimore, Maryland. In the 1950s, the family relocated to Southern California, where Zappa’s father worked in the defense industry as a mathematician and chemist.
Zappa’s musical influences included composers Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, blues artist Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and various R & B, jazz, and doo wop groups, which led him to create music that fused genres, incorporating rock, jazz, synth, and classical. During his thirty-year career, Zappa, a self-taught musician and composer, made nearly seventy albums and several film scores, both as a solo artist and with his band, the Mothers of Invention.
Zappa’s hit songs such as the Grammy Award-nominated “Valley Girl,” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” led him to be pigeonholed as a “novelty” musician. He proved himself a talented, multifaceted composer, however, whose music defied convention and was often politically charged. He was a critic of organized religion and a passionate advocate for freedom of speech, political participation, and the abolition of censorship.
After “hearing” musical arrangements in his head, Zappa transcribed his symphonic works and hired, at his own expense, professional orchestras to perform his compositions. London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 & 2, and The Yellow Shark, released in 1993, shortly before Zappa’s death, are considered among his finest avant-garde classical pieces. Zappa’s instrumental jazz fusion composition "Peaches en Regalia," from the 1969 album Hot Rats, is frequently performed by orchestras.
With an exception of one track, Zappa composed the Grammy Award winning album Jazz From Hell, on the Synclavier DMS, an early digital synthesizer, sampling system, and music workstation. Despite the fact that it was entirely instrumental, some stores placed a parental advisory sticker on the album, which featured fellow Italian American guitarist Steve Vai.
Made possible by a loan from the Zappa Family Trust
Born in Orange County, Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, fashion designer, and actress Gwen Stefani cofounded the band No Doubt in 1986. The group enjoyed numerous hit singles, including "Don’t Speak" and "Simple Kind of Life", and has sold more than thirty million albums worldwide. No Doubt’s distinctive sound, which includes elements of ska, pop, reggae, and punk, appealed to diverse audiences.
Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Marianna Gatto and Robert Checchi
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Francesca Guerrini
Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Alamy, Library of Congress, Saveur magazine, Bon Appetit magazine, Los Angeles Public Library, Mother Cabrini Chapel and Library, John Fante and Victoria Fante Cohen, Branimir Kvartuc, Mugnaini Family Trust, Lewis Hine, Kenneth Scambray, the Politi family, and Marcus Cristiana Beniger.
Special thanks to the Gallidoro family, Moschella family, Pagnone family, Zappa Family Trust, Drago family, Piero Selvaggio, Ben Schirmer and David Pozzi, the Guerrini-Romano family, the Marino family, Gatto family, Joseph Anthony Gatto, Bernal family, D'Agostaro family, Carmelo Sabatella, Joseph DeLigio and the Madonna di Costantinopoli Society, St. Peter's Church, DiCostanzo family, Leonotti family, Connie Costa Foster, Bianca Asci Sclafani, Tony DeSantis, the Venti-Petas family, Maria Virgilio, Politi family, Hotchkis family, Joanne Griffo, Mimmo Bruno family, D'Egidio-Armstrong family, Antoci family, Harris-Rizzi family, LaRocca family, Scambray family, Luisa Del Giudice, Ianni-Garcia family, Mahoney family, and Marcus and Eunah Cristiana Beniger.