"Nebraska: where the West begins" was a tourism slogan referring to the fact that the Cornhusker State (the name comes from the way corn, the state's main product, was commonly harvested, by "husking" it by hand) occupies the central portion of the Frontier Strip, that unbroken border line that bisects the United States from north to south, starting in North Dakota and ending in Texas.
So what does Nebraska have to do with We the Italians? Italians arrived here too, more precisely Sicilians, even more precisely Carlentinesi, from Carlentini, a small town in the province of Siracusa from which many left to arrive in Omaha, Nebraska's most important city. Lisa Bolamperti Garrett, the first woman in the history to lead the American Italian Heritage Society of Omaha, tells us about it. Welcome to We the Italians!
Lisa, you have been the Chairman of the Board of the American Italian Heritage Society of Omaha, Nebraska. Please tell us a bit about the history and the activities if this club
My term as Chairwoman of the Board ended at the end of last year. I was the first female Chairman of the Board ever in the history of the American Italian Heritage Society. I am the daughter of AIHS founders Ted and Jeaniene Bolamperti.
While serving my 3 year term, we were plagued with covid. We continued the mission of the AIHS but on a smaller scale and with some events having to be cancelled.
The AIHS Board organized many drive-thru events to continue our mission. What do Italians do best? Food! So we organized several drive-thru events to sell our homemade pasta, meatballs, sausage, cannoli and pizza. Omaha loves our food! The turn outs were amazing.
AIHS was founded over 40 years ago by 8 people who had a passion for sharing their Italian culture and traditions. Our events have included pasta dinners, cooking classes, wine tasting events, folk dancing classes, Italian language classes, the celebration of the Epiphany, bocce tournaments, picnics, and our favorite event, La Festa Italiana.
Please, tell our readers what happens during this event
La Festa Italiana is a 3-day celebration of Italian food, culture and fun. Held at Il Palazzo, in Omaha, La Festa is attended by 1000s of people in the area. With over 500 volunteers, our homemade food is the main draw. Preparation for La Festa begins several months in advance.
In addition to food, we sell Italian wine and beer, have a Bocce ball tournament with local celebrities, provide cooking demonstrations, and have live music along with other entertainment. La Festa has been our tradition for over 40 years. Our tag line is…”everyone should be Italian at least once a year.”
I see that you have your own Bocce League… do you play Bocce?
No, I do not play:) But we do have a bocce ball tournament at our La Festa.
What is “Il Palazzo”?
Il Palazzo, “the palace,” is our building where our events are held. With the help and generous support of so many people, we were able to design and build a building that we now call home. Il Palazzo opened it’s doors in 2017. In addition to our own events, Il Palazzo is a venue for weddings, holiday parties and special events.
What’s the story of the Italian emigration in Nebraska?
Most Italian immigrants arrived in Omaha before the 1920s and many came from the Sicilian town of Carlentini. They were pushed from Sicily due to poor economic conditions and heard Nebraska and Omaha offered a chance of prosperity.
The people from Carlentini stayed a close-knit community in Omaha, held on to many traditions, and kept in touch with relatives and friends left behind in Sicily.
In September 2021, the mayor of Omaha and Carlentini, Sicily, entered into a Sister City Friendship Agreement, recognizing the century-old connection between the cities and a history of family, faith, culture and tradition.
The virtual signing ceremony, held at the Durham Western Heritage Museum, is the first step towards becoming Sister Cities in the future. The museum location was used to recognize the Union Pacific Railroad as an employer for many of the first Carlentini immigrants.
In that moment, these were the words from Mayor Jean Stothert, Honorary Chair of the Omaha Sister Cities Association: “Union Station is a National Historic Landmark and a symbol of the railroad’s important role in the history of Omaha and the people or Carlentini. The early Carlentini population led to the development of Omaha’s Little Italy neighborhood with family-owned restaurants, shops, food markets, and small businesses, just a few blocks from where we are today.”
Are there family names of that have a meaningful importance in describing the Italian community in Omaha of the past and nowadays?
Common names that are joined between Carlentini and Omaha are La Greca, Distefano, Caniglia, Procopio, DiGiacomo, Ingalise, Vacanti, to name a few.
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