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A Brief History of Italians of Los Angeles

Italians have significantly contributed to the development of Los Angeles, one of the largest American cities yet the history of Italians in the West is often unknown. Los Angeles is home to the nation’s sixth-largest Italian population and examining the region’s Italian roots and the makeup of the Italian Diaspora is extremely complex. It plays a large role in the diversity of Southern California's past. 

Italians in the City of Angels 

Los ángeles city map

Map of Los Angeles (Photo Credit: IAMLA.org)

In 1781, Spain planted their roots in California by establishing El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Ángeles, later becoming the Los Angeles metropolitan area. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 Italians began moving to Southern California. The first Italian settler was sailor Giovanni Leandri who arrived in 1827. He established a store at the Plaza, which later became the first Italian enclave in the city, and purchased 48,000 acres of land in Rancho Los Coyotes, present-day Buena Park, and the neighboring area of Rancho Cañada de la Habra. The Plaza encompassed a diverse group of Mexican, French, Anglo, and Chinese neighbors who lived amongst each other. 

Italian immigrants perceived Los Angeles to be a place for upward mobility. By 1850, the area developed with Italian businessmen who became civic and religious leaders. Many loved how Southern California’s climate felt similar to the Mediterranean, which made it the perfect location to pursue jobs in agriculture and viticulture. The Plaza would become home to many Italian wineries, earning Olvera Street the nickname “Wine Street '' as well as making Los Angeles the leader of wine production in the state at the time. 

Little Italy in Los Angeles

Italians in Los Angeles

(Photo Credit: IAMLA.org)

The Italians in Los Angeles established their own Little Italy, serving as an extension of their motherland. The ethnic enclave made it easier for immigrants to settle into their new city. The original Little Italy of Los Angeles comprised the Plaza area known as, “Sonoratown” and the sixth and seventh wards. People from Genoa, Sicily, and Ischia moved to the waterfront area of San Pedro and over 40,000 Italians still live there today. 

Italians continued to move to other parts of the city like Lincoln Heights and Dogtown, which was home to the famous Italian filmmaker Frank Capra. Walking down the street it was common to hear Italian music playing from grocery stores, bakeries, banks, cafes, and pharmacies. 

In 1908, a community center was built in the heart of Little Italy known as “Italian Hall”. The building was covered in gold against the yellow brick of the building. Now considered a historical landmark, the hall served as a meeting place for Italians to host events like weddings, concerts, socio-cultural events, politicians, celebrities, and more. The hall played a key role in the free speech and labor movements when Italians were viewed as “enemy aliens” during World War II. 

the Italian Hall in Los Angeles

(Photo Credit: IAMLA.org)

Italian Culture in Los Angeles 

Today, there are many areas of Los Angeles where you can soak in Italian American culture. The Italian Cultural Center of Los Angeles located in Westwood Village is dedicated to educating its community about Italian culture and affairs by hosting events, festivals, and art exhibitions from Italian artists. They also sponsor Italian language classes.

Located on the Malibu coast in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood is The Getty Villa. The villa is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri in the ancient city of Herculaneum. The Getty Villa is dedicated to the studies of ancient Roman, Greek, and Etruscan art and cultures. 

The Getty Villa

L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is an authentic pizzeria where you can enjoy a classic Neapolitan pizza in the heart of Hollywood. While spending the day in Santa Monica, you can experience the finest cuisine from the Puglia region featuring pastries, lunch, dinner, and drinks at La Puglia. 

Fatamorgana Gelato is the perfect spot to indulge in Roman gelato right here in the US. For a quick bite, you can’t miss Bay Cities Sandwiches. Each of their sandwiches is prepared with fresh bread, and while you can order from the counter, they also make pre-made sandwiches.

For authentic Italian products, check out Guidi Marcello. This family-owned and operated business has been serving the Los Angeles community since 1981. They got their start when Marcello Guidi immigrated to Los Angeles from his hometown of Lucca, Tuscany in 1945. His knowledge and love of Italian fine goods and wines for over 3 generations.

AJ Forrisi

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