In the 50 years from 1870 to 1920, it’s estimated that more than 20,000 Italian immigrants ended up in Cleveland.
The city was on its way up, filled with mills and factories looking for cheap labor, and Italian immigrants were more than willing to pitch in, settling in enclaves within the city. Today, a century later, vestiges of their work and culture can still be found throughout the area.
There were two main Italian neighborhoods in Cleveland. Big Italy, on the city’s near east side, at one point was a bustling community, with many produce markets. But population started to decline and the neighborhood, blighted, was bulldozed. It’s now a mishmash of freeways leading into downtown.
Farther east – almost to the city’s border with Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland – is Little Italy, a stretch of Mayfield Road still filled with Italian food and cultural activities. The neighborhood sprouted up as skilled stonecutters settled in the area, working on gravestones at nearby Lake View Cemetery. Touted as Cleveland’s outdoor museum, the cemetery is the final resting place for President James Garfield and John D. Rockefeller, among others. The cemetery is also notable for its ornate gravestones and monuments, as well as Wade Chapel, designed by Louis Tiffany.
The neighborhood remains a hub for Italian-American culture. Every August, Mayfield Road shuts down for a weekend for the Feast of the Assumption, a street festival tied to a holy day in the Catholic Church.
Two cultural landmarks also opened in Little Italy in 2021. A statue was unveiled of former Indians slugger Rocky Colavito on Aug. 10 (his birthday) that year. Colavito was a star player who once hit four home runs in a game before being dealt to the Tigers in a move that was suggested (not entirely in jest) to have doomed the team to wander the desert for decades.
Later that fall, the Italian-American Museum of Cleveland opened, chronicling the lives of Italians who came to Cleveland, bringing with them a variety of traditions and skills within the building trades.
Eat and Drink
Little Italy is full of restaurants for any occasion or budget. Mama Santa’s offers Italian fare, but is probably best-known (and best-regarded) for its pizza. Guarino’s is a fourth-generation restaurant in Little Italy – Cleveland’s oldest restaurant, in fact – and its patio is a wonderful place to people-watch and dine alfresco on summer evenings.
Little Italy is also home to two delicious Italian bakeries: Corbo’s and Presti’s. Corbo’s is more dessert-oriented, while Presti’s also offers antipasto, pizza and other lunchtime options.
There’s also a Corbo’s in Playhouse Square, a downtown-adjacent neighborhood home to the city’s theater scene. A popular spot for pre-show dining is Cibreo’s Italian Kitchen, located in the Hanna Building.
Downtown, there’s Il Venetian, in the Key Tower, Cleveland’s tallest building, and Johnny’s, in the nearby Warehouse District. Johnny’s also has a bar on Fulton Avenue on the near West Side, and Johnny’s Little Bar, a speakeasy type tavern behind Johnny’s. All have a variety of Italian food, steaks and seafood.
The Italians and the Guardians
One of the earliest Italians to come to Cleveland was Giuseppe Carabelli, a stonecutter who established his shop in Little Italy to be near Lake View Cemetery. But probably the most notable public art by Italian artisans can be found spanning the Cuyahoga River – and now serves as namesake for Cleveland’s baseball team.
When the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge opened in 1932, it was the second high-level bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River and linking downtown Cleveland to the near west side neighborhood of Ohio City. It was also notable for the 43-foot-high pylons, carved from sandstone by Italian artisans. The pylons are based on statues of Greek gods, each holding a mode of land transportation. They became known as the Guardians of Traffic, and in 2021, the Cleveland Indians announced they’d take the field the following season as the Guardians, a tribute to the statues that stand to this day.
Italian Cultural Garden
In 1896, John D. Rockefeller donated 200 acres to the city of Cleveland. It became a park named for him, and eventually was home to the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, now a total of 33 gardens, each commemorating the various ethnic groups that came together to make the city great.
The Italian Cultural Garden features a renaissance fountain and a series of statues commemorating great Italians, including statues of Dante Aligheri and Virgil, and a plaque honoring Italo Balbo, a pilot who flew from Italy to Cleveland in the early days of aviation. Summer features an annual opera in the garden in July, and the entire Cultural Gardens host a celebration in August called One World Day.
No stop in Cleveland is complete without visiting the West Side Market. Located at the Ohio City end of the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, the market features all kinds of foods, from fresh pasta to a variety of Italian desserts, including cannoli, pizzelles and that sweet Cleveland tradition, cassata cake, a frosted layered sponge cake filled with strawberries and custard.
In 1912, Gust Gallucci started selling food to his fellow Italian immigrants. For four generations, the Galluccis have run an Italian grocery store as well as a wholesaler that sells Italian food to many of the city’s popular restaurants. Located at Euclid Avenue and East 66th Street on the city’s East Side, Gallucci’s also does a brisk lunchtime business, selling sandwiches and slices of pizza.
Vince Guerrieri is a Youngstown native now working as a journalist in the Cleveland area. He's worked at newspapers throughout Northern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, and his work has appeared in outlets as varied as POLITICO, Popular Mechanics, CityLab and Defector.