Omaha’s Little Italy can be found snuggled near the Old Market along the eastern edge of the Missouri River. Immigrants from southern Italy began to arrive in the 1890s and settled near the intersection of 24th and Poppleton Streets. Two brothers, Joseph and Sebastiano Salerno are credited with founding Little Italy, located further north near the Union Pacific yards in downtown, according to Omaha Italians.com.
When Sebastiano Salerno took a job as an agent for a steamship company in 1904, he encouraged friends to emigrate from Sicily. Joseph Salerno then secured jobs in Union Pacific shops, according to Omaha Italians.com history section. A year later, Sicilian immigrants settled along Sixth Street in the hills, south of downtown.
More Sicilians made Omaha their new home between 1912 and 1913 with an additional influx of immigrants after World War I. South Tenth Street became an important hub for the Italian community.
The original Little Italy boasted a small commercial area on South Sixth Street that extended west along Pierce Street, featuring a grocery store, clothing and shoe stores and the Bank of Sicily, founded in 1908 by the Salerno brothers, according to the “History of Omaha Italians.” Large scale immigration from Italy essentially ended after the U.S. enacted the Immigration Act of 1924.
Little Italy produced much of Omaha’s bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era. Omaha city boss Tom Dennison put Sicilian native Frank Calamia in charge of liquor syndicate operations in Omaha’s south side. After the end of World War II, Calamia controlled the local outlet of a national race wire service, according to Omaha Italians.com.
Through the generations, Italian immigrants cherished their Catholic faith, rich culture and cuisine. They celebrated their love of family and traditions through such special events as the Santa Lucia Festival. Founded in 1925 by Grazia Bonafede Caniglia, who immigrated from Carlentini, Sicily in 1900. The devout Catholic mother of six children, walked every day at 5 a.m. to say her prayers at St. Philomena Church, now St. Francis Cabrini Church. Caniglia made it her mission to bring Carlentini’s Santa Lucia Festival to Omaha to give immigrants a strong connection to their home country and deepen their faith in their adopted home, according to the Santa Lucia Festival website.
The Santa Lucia Festival continues today to celebrate the unity within the Italian-American community and their beloved heritage.
An integral part of their heritage is the authentic cuisine and many recipes came from Sicily. Little Italy is the proud home of Orsi’s Bakery & Pizzeria, founded in 1919 and Cascio’s Steakhouse, a tradition since 1933.
Little Italy is also known for its distinctive architecture such as St. Francis Cabrini Church, located at 10th and William Streets. Built in 1908, by nationally acclaimed Omaha architect Thomas Rogers Kimball, the church is an important early example of the Spanish Colonia Revival style. This design reached its zenith in American architecture between 1915 and 1940, according to the St Francis Cabrini website. An Omaha landmark, the church earned National Registry status in 1980.
Another Omaha landmark is the Cornish residence, an empire-style mansion built in 1886, now converted into apartment homes. Today, Little Italy bustles with new housing and projects, offering a fresh vibe and diversity to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Little Italy remains one of Omaha’s true gems.