The cover of Fra Noi reads “Embrace your inner Italian”: words that inspire us to explore every aspect of our heritage and community. In my case, the catchy phrase opened the door to the Italian Cultural Center at Casa Italia. An oasis of italianità in Stone Park, the center is home to a hardy band of volunteers who truly live this calling.
I paid my first visit in 2015 and was introduced to Dominic Candeloro, a pensive curator with glasses that often slide down his nose. He, in turn, introduced me to the vast cultural riches of the center: its Italians in Chicago exhibit, art galleries, extensive library and archives, and so much more.
My desire to embrace my inner Italian was kindled earlier that year during a visit to my father’s birthplace in Torricella-Peligna, a small town in the magnificent Maiella mountains of Abruzzo. Unfortunately, my father, Attilio Italo Colasante, didn’t share the gift of la nostra lingua with me, so I felt a little lost among the fluent Italian speakers during my stay.
The archives of the Italian Cultural Center give written and pictorial testimony to the hundreds of thousands of Italians who, like my father, worked hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in America. Regrettably, the fearful years of World War II caused my father to rename himself Leo Colsant and keep his beloved ancestral tongue to himself.
It was a period of rapid assimilation into American society. Nonetheless, his Italianism never left him. Like his father, Giuseppe, he played the violin and, when he raised a family, grew a vegetable garden. You know, the usuals: zucchini, eggplant, oregano, parsley, tomatoes and so on. His mother, Rosa, insisted on speaking Dante’s Italian and Grandpa always slipped into the local dialect, but none of that rubbed off on me.
During my visit to Torricella-Peligna, I did research in a small archival room of the Church of San Giacomo, which contained 300 years of baptismal, marriage and death records. Giuseppe and Rosa Colasante married at the church and had their five children baptized there. The church’s campanile, or bell tower, embraces the town with sound each hour. It issues a call to prayer and, to some locals, an invitation to pause at the Penna Nera cafe for a cappuccino.
I find this same profound sense of communion among the volunteers at our cultural center. Every Wednesday, our own campanile rings out when we hear “Coffee’s ready! Pronto!” and Ross gathers us for a cappuccino in the Florentine Room. As we sit and sip, Francesco updates us on his podcast, and Vincenzo shares his vast knowledge of medieval and modern Italian history. Then, there’s Lucio, our cuoco di pasta. If he isn’t in Italy, he’s as constant as the Swiss Guard of our magnificent 1/100-scale replica of St. Peter’s on the third floor of the center.
We fondly recall the involvement of Fr. August Feccia, the center’s founder and spiritual guide, who would unite us in prayer and regale us with fiery passages from Dante’s “Inferno.” We also remember past volunteers like Domenico, who would surprise us with dishes featuring fresh-from-the-garden eggplant or zucchini, or his strong homemade wine.
Here, I’m part of an extended Italian family. I revert to the name Leo, from my birth certificate. Pian piano, I muster the courage to speak Italian, even if the conversation leaves me frustrated. I learn it as I embrace it.
We come together and labor as a family. Anna and I digitize documents of past hard-working Italians in Chicago. Barbara and Terrence bring a fresh look to the costumes and artifacts of the Sicilian Heritage Museum. We can’t wait to delve into the plays of Luigi Pirandello, having previously explored Dante’s “La divina commedia.”
The Italian Cultural Center is a living experience as well as a cultural treasure. A wealth of heritage and warm Italian friendship awaits you. If you would like to join us, email me at email@example.com. We welcome you to experience our oasis of italianità, as you deepen your embrace with your inner Italian.
The above appears in the May 2023 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.