By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President
This catchy slogan we’ve seen printed on t-shirts sold at Italian American church festivals says an awful lot about our Italian American history in 9 simple words. Let’s take a closer look at the Italians and Italian Americans who discovered it, named it, and built it.
We Discovered It
Although some question whether Columbus actually discovered America, no one can dispute the fact that his epic voyage forever changed the course of world history. By connecting the Old World with the New World, Columbus began the process of over 525 years of worldwide immigration to America by people seeking a better life for their families.
We Named It
The New World was named America to honor the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. He explored the mainland of the new contents shortly after Columbus’s voyage, and was the first explorer to educate the Europeans to the fact that they had not found Asia, as they thought, but in fact a new land. Hence, it was given his name.
We Built It
Although it only took the exploits of two great Italians to discover and name America, it has taken the ingenuity, talent and hard work of millions of Italians and Italian Americans to help build America.
From the early Italian explorers such as Verrazzano and Cabot, to Philip Mazzei — from whom Jefferson paraphrased the words “all men are created equal” for the Declaration of Independence — to William Paca, a signer of the Declaration, and to those Italians who fought in the Revolutionary War, Italians played an important role in the founding of the United States of America.
But once the U.S. was born, it was the Italian immigrants and their offspring who worked tirelessly to help build America.
They worked to build its roadways and railroads, its sewers and dams, and its buildings and homes. They worked in factories, coal mines and steel mills. They helped feed the country by catching its fish and providing new foods and vegetables for its tables. They heroically fought in disproportionate numbers in WWI, WWII and subsequent wars to defend the country. And they made major contributions in politics, law, education, military, sports, business, food, and in movies, television and entertainment.
In this article, we shine a light on those Italian Americans who have made significant contributions to the growth and success of America.
William Paca – signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Continental Congress, the Governor of Maryland, and a Federal District Judge.
Fiorello La Guardia – charismatic three-term mayor of New York City (1934-45) who gained national prominence for his fight against political corruption and his embrace of new minority groups.
Ella T. Grasso – the first woman to be elected governor of a U.S. state without succeeding her husband when she was elected Governor of Connecticut (1975-80).
Mario Cuomo – three-term Governor of New York (1983-94) who was considered a likely presidential candidate in 1988 and 1992 after delivering a brilliant keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention.
Nancy Pelosi – the first woman to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007. She was returned to the position in 2019 and is the second person in line to succeed to the presidency behind the Vice President. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, was the former Mayor of Baltimore.
Other Prominent Italian American Politicians include:
Geraldine Ferraro – first woman nominated as a major party’s vice presidential candidate.
John A. Volpe – former Governor of Massachusetts (1961-63, 65-69)
John Pastore – former Governor of Rhode Island (1945-50)
Andrew Cuomo – Governor of New York (2010-present)
This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper. Join ISDA today for $25/year and receive a 12-month subscription of the newspaper that features stories chronicling Italian traditions, travel, culture, food and much more.
Antonin Scalia – the first Italian American to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was selected to serve by President Ronald Reagan and confirmed in 1986, and served 30 years before his death in 2016. He was known for his sharp intellect and is considered one of the most important Supreme Court Justices in the history of the Court.
Samuel Alito – the second Italian American to be appointed to the Supreme Court. He was selected to serve by President George H.W. Bush in 2006. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he was the only justice to argue that a woman should be required to inform her husband prior to receiving an abortion.
John J. Scirica – Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court from the District of Columbia who rose to national prominence during the Watergate scandal. He presided over the trials of those charged with the burglary, ordered President Nixon to release the White House tapes, and is credited with uncovering the truth about Watergate.
Louis Zamperini – a high school and Olympian track star who spent 47 days in a raft in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down in WWII. He thereafter survived two years of brutal torture as a POW. His life story was depicted in a book and movie titled, Unbroken, A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.
John Basilone – the only U.S. Marine in WWII to be awarded both the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Battle of Henderson Field, and the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima, our nation’s two highest military awards. Gen. Douglas MacArthur praised Basilone as “a one man Army.”
Don Gentile – WWII Air Force pilot who holds the record for the most downed enemy aircraft.
Peter Pace – U.S. Marine Corps general who served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Military.
Other Prominent Italian Americans in the U.S. Military include:
Raymond Odierno – general who served as the Army’s Chief of Staff
Anthony Zinni – general who served as Commander in Chief of the Central Command
Lidia Bastianich – born Lidia Giuliana Matticchio a celebrity chef, television host, restaurant owner and author who specializes in Italian American cuisine. She credits the Catholic Relief Agency with relocating her family to America after WWII.
Hector Boyardee – born Ettore Boiardi, an Italian American chef who established the famous food brands named after him. At its peak in 1985, the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee canned spaghetti line was grossing $500 million per year.
Rachel Ray – Emmy Award-winning television personality, celebrity chef and author who credits her grandfather Emanuel Scuderi with having a strong influence on her cooking. She has coined and popularized many catchy cooking terms including EVOO (short for Extra Virgin Olive Oil.)
Giada De Laurentis – born in Rome, Italy and the granddaughter of famed film producer Dino De Laurentis, she is an Emmy Award-winning television host for Outstanding Lifestyles, as well as a co-host on NBC’s Today.
Mario Batali – well-known TV personality for his appearances on Molto Mario and Iron Chef America, his career imploded in December 2017 when multiple allegations of sexual misconduct were made public.
Buddy Valastro – star of the reality TV series Cake Boss, he has become the prominent authority on Italian American pastry.
Frank Sinatra – the most popular and influential American singer of the 20th century. He more than any other artist literally defined the Great American Songbook. Perhaps the most prominent Italian American of all time.
Tony Bennett – born Anthony Benedetto, the last living great Italian American crooner of the post-WWII era. His signature song is I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
Frankie Valli – born Francesco Castelluccio, he is best known for his distinctive falsetto voice as lead singer of the Four Seasons. The group had over 25 top 40 hits, including Sherry, Walk Like a Man, and I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.
Madonna – born Madonna Louise Ciccone, the “Queen of Pop” who achieved international fame by pushing the boundaries of main stream music in her performances and videos with such hits as Like A Virgin and Material Girl.
Lady Gaga – born Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanotta, this international pop icon has performed the half time show at the Super Bowl, recently appeared with Bradley Cooper (another Italian American) in the acclaimed movie, A Star is Born, and often sings with Tony Bennett.
Other Prominent Italian American Singers include:
Dean Martin, Perry Como, Connie Francis, Jon Bon Jovi, Bobby Darrin, Louie Prima, Dion DeMucci, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Sonny Bono, Jerry Vale, Mario Lanza
Rudolph Valentino – born Rodolfo Pietro Filberto Raffaello Gugliemi, silent film icon who became the U.S.’s first major sex symbol before his untimely death at the age of 31. Known as the “Latin Lover,” he starred in The Sheik, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Blood and Sand.
Ann Bancroft – born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, Academy Award-, Emmy-, Golden Globe- and Tony Award-winning actress who appeared in 68 films and plays.
Al Pacino – winner of Oscar, Emmy and Tony Awards, his roles in The Godfather and Scarface are among the most memorable in film history. His father was born in San Fratello, Sicily, and his mother’s parents were born in Corleone, Sicily.
Sylvester Stallone – writer and actor who created the legendary role of Rocky Balboa in the movie Rocky, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976 and spawned seven follow-up films in the series.
John Travolta – began his career in television playing Vinnie Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter. Went on to film stardom with such classics as Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Pulp Fiction. He is a Scientologist, who also owns and pilots his own airplane.
Robert De Niro – acclaimed actor who frequently portrayed Italian American characters in his roles in The Godfather Part II, (as a young Vito Corleone), Raging Bull (as boxer Jake LaMotta), and A Bronx Tale, (as Lorenzo Anello). As a 2-year-old, his grandparents had him secretly baptized into the Catholic Church over his parents objections.
Other Prominent Italian American Actors include:
Yvonne DeCarlo, Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Michael Imperioli, Nicholas Cage, Paul Giammati, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brooke Shields, John Turturro, Joe Pesci, Amy Adams, Paul Sorvino, Jackie Cooper, Maria Bello, Richard Conte, Ernest Borgnine, Don Ameche, Tony Lo Bianco.
Susan Lucci – television actress best known for her portraying Erica Kane on the ABC soap opera All My Children for an incredible 41 years, from 1970-2011. The New York Times reported that she was the highest paid actor in daytime television.
Alan Alda – born Alphonso Joseph D’Abruzzo, a multiple Emmy Award-winning actor for his portrayal of “Hawkeye,” the wise cracking surgeon on the acclaimed television show M*A*S*H. He and his wife Arlene have been married for 61 years – a rare feat by Hollywood standards.
Tony Danza – starred in two very successful television sitcoms portraying Italian American characters – Tony Banta in Taxi, and Tony Micelli in Who’s the Boss? After graduating from college, he became a professional boxer and was discovered by a television producer while training in the gym.
Lorraine Bracco – best known as Dr. Melfi in the television series, The Sopranos, and as Angela Rizzoli in Rizzoli and Isles. She also won critical acclaim for her role as Karen Hill in Goodfellas. At age 20 she began her first job as a fashion model in France.
Other Prominent Italian American Television Actors include:
Edie Falco, Dennis Farina, James Gandolfini, Ralph Macchio, Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Penny Marsall, Kay Ballard, Vince Edwards and Tea Leoni.
Frank Capra – born in Sicily, this three time Academy Award winner directed some of the most popular and iconic American films including, It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Capra, who was raised in a Sicilian ghetto in Los Angeles, once stated “All I had was cockiness – and let me tell you that gets you a long way.”
Francis Ford Coppola – Academy Award-winning director for what are considered to be two of America’s greatest film classics, The Godfather, and The Godfather, Part II. He now owns a winery and several vacation resorts, one of which is located in his paternal grandparents’ hometown of Bermalda, Italy.
Martin Scorsese – regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in cinematic history, his films’ themes explore his Siclian American and Roman Catholic identity. His films include Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Casino and Raging Bull. His mother Catherine has appeared in several of his films.
Anthony & Joe Russo – for two of the last three years the brothers have directed the highest grossing box office films in the world – Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Their 2019 release, Avengers: Endgame, should allow them to set the record for the third time.
Other Prominent Italian American Film Directors include:
Brian DePalma, Quentin Tarantino, Penny Marshall and Michael Cimino.
Joe DiMaggio – New York Yankee baseball legend who holds the game’s most coveted record with his 56-game hitting streak. An icon off the field as well as on the field, he dated Marilyn Monroe.
Joe Montana – considered by many experts to be the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, having won all four Super Bowls he played in, and having been named Super Bowl MVP in three of those games. His nickname – “Joe Cool.”
Eddie Arcaro – horse racing Hall of Fame jockey who is the only jockey in history to win The Triple Crown twice. Standing 5’2” tall and weighing 114 lbs., he is widely regarded as the greatest jockey in horse racing history.
Mario Andretti – race car driving legend who was only the second American to win the Formula One World Championship, as well as winning four Indy Car Championships. Mario has a twin brother named Aldo.
Jake LaMotta – Middleweight Boxing Champion whose life was depicted in Martin Scorsese’s award winning film Raging Bull. His father forced him to fight other boys to entertain neighborhood adults who would throw change in the ring which the father used to pay his rent.
Julia Mancuso – Olympic skier who won gold, silver and bronze medals in the giant slalom in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. She has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity.
Other Prominent Italian American Sports Figures include:
Rocky Marciano, Hulk Hogan, Dan Marino, Yogi Berra, Brian Boitano, Mary Lou Retton.
Tommy LaSorda – 20 year manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who won 1,600 games and two World Series Championships. At age 91, he is the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Vince Lombardi – led the Green Bay Packers to three consecutive NFL Championships in 1965, 66 and 67, as well as the first two Super Bowl championships. The Super Bowl Trophy is named after him.
Geno Auriemma – as the University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball coach, he has led his team to 11 NCAA Division I National Championships – the most in college basketball history. He has also coached the U.S. Women Olympic Team to gold medals in 2012 and 2016.
Other Prominent Italian American Coaches include:
Joe Torre, Joe Paterno, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, John Gagliardi and Jim Valvano.
Enrico Fermi – known as the “architect of the nuclear age,” he won the Nobel Prize in 1938 for creating the world’s first nuclear reactor; he led the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb which effectively ended WWII.
Mario R. Capecchi – won the 2007 Nobel Prize innovations concerning targeted gene modification.
Other Prominent Italian American Scientists include:
John Cioffi, Andrew V. Granato, Joe Landolina, Mariangela Lisanti, L.M. Narducci, Daniel Tomasulo and Salvatore Torquato.
A. Bartlett Giamatti – American professor of English Renaissance Literature who became President of Yale University and the 7th Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He said “A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching
Maria Bartiromo – television news anchor at CNBC and The Fox Business Network; first report to appear live at the New York Stock Exchange.
Chris Cuomo – television news anchor featured on CNN, 20/20 and Good Morning America. He is the son of former N.Y. Governor Mario Cuomo and brother of current N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Kellyanne Conway – a political news commentator who served as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, she is the first woman to successfully run a presidential campaign.
Megyn Kelly – former news anchor at Fox News and former host of NBC morning television show, Megyn Kelly Today.
Lee Iacocca – automobile executive who served as president of two of American’s three major car companies, Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation, which he saved from bankruptcy. He also served as chairman of the committee to restore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
A.P. Gianinni – founder of the Bank of American which became the world’s largest commercial bank in part due to his ingenuity of establishing branch banking.
Richard Grasso – former chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, the pre-eminent U.S. stock market. Grasso started out working as a lowly clerk at the Exchange two weeks after being discharged from the Army.
Robert Louis Nardelli – former chairman and CEO of Chrysler Corporation and Home Depot.
Samuel J. Palmisano – former president and CEO of IBM. In 2016 President Obama appointed him vice chairman of the White House Cyber Security Commission to defend the U.S. against cyber attacks.
Other Prominent Italian American Business Leaders include:
Steve Biscotti – owner of the Baltimore Ravens NFL Football Team.
Fred De Luca – founder of Subway fast food chain.
Tom Gulisano – founder of Paychex.
Kenneth Langone – founder of Home Depot.
Leonard Riggio – owner of Barnes & Noble.
Bob Guccione – founder of Penthouse Magazine.