Located between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, the Great Plains of the United States is distinguished by its vast grasslands, rolling hills, and peculiar climate. Another lesser-known defining feature of North America’s breadbasket is that Omaha, Nebraska is home to a large population of Italians. While cultural diversity may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Cornhusker State, the rich history and traditions of Italians in Omaha is as interesting as it is enlightening.
Little Italy in Omaha
Omaha's first Italian enclave developed near the intersection of South 24th Street and Poppleton Street. It was established by immigrants from southern Italy and migrants from eastern American cities. Most of the Italian population in Omaha can be traced back to the Sicilian town of Carlentini. During the 1890s, two brothers named Joseph and Sebastiano Salerno established the Little Italy neighborhood in North Omaha located near the union pacific railroad yards.
In 1904, Sebastiano Salerno took a job working as an agent for a steamship company and would regularly encourage Sicilians to emigrate to the United States and continue westward to Omaha. Joseph Salerno helped immigrants by securing housing and finding work, especially in the Union Pacific shops in the downtown area. By 1906, many of the Italians that had moved into the city took residence along South 6th Street. After World War 1, more Italians immigrated to Omaha and settled along South 10th Street, another major area that took in Italians. This Italian enclave was majorly influenced by Salerno Brothers with businesses they opened like a grocery store, clothing, and shoe shops as well as the Bank of Sicily
Italian Culture in Omaha
After settling in America, it was common for Italian immigrants to have a yearning for a piece of their homeland. Although Italians had banded together, they wanted and needed more within their communities to stay connected to Italy. The Santa Lucia Hall, Order of the Sons of Italy, and American-Italian Heritage Society were established so Italians could bring their community together through food, family, and friends. These societies would hold events like monthly spaghetti dinners, and annual festivals, and help keep their culture alive and thrive.
Santa Lucia of Carlentini in Sicily became a centralized figure for the residents of Omaha. Today, the Santa Lucia festival is held annually and is celebrated throughout Little Italy, a tradition that has continued since the first immigrants landed in Omaha. The festival features a parade with the statue of Saint Lucia, as well as live music, silent auctions, and plenty of food. “La Festa” is another annual festival held around labor day every year and is one of the Omaha area’s most beloved festivals. The three-day festival features movie nights, food pavilions with delis, Italian ice cream shops, pastry shops, wine tastings, and novelty items for sale.
Assistant Editor for America Domani, AJ Forrisi is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer. His work focuses on food, travel, sports, landscapes, and urban scenes. You can find him on Instagram @aj.photo.works.