The initial group of Italians came to this country between 1890 and 1910. Many Italians emigrating from their homeland came to Delaware County by way of Philadelphia and Wilmington.
A large number settled in Marcus Hook, Chester and the Linwood area, establishing communities that became known as “Little Italy.” As these communities grew, churches were built to accommodate their Italian-speaking residents. In Chester, St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church was established in 1908, and the First Italian Presbyterian Church in 1912. In Marcus Hook, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was established in 1917.
A small pocket of Italian immigrants settled in a section of East Lansdowne, referred to as “Tin Town.” It consisted of a cluster of houses covering about six square blocks, the Italian Club, and the Italian grocery store Gambles—currently the proprietors of Gambles Bar in Drexel Hill. Although most families could speak some English, the common language was Italian. The area was called Tin Town because the houses had tin roofs.
In some parts of the county, Italians blended with English and other language communities. Towns like Upper Darby had no Italian neighborhood and are a beautiful blend of many cultures, remaining true “melting pots.”
Doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals sometimes had to take on different jobs because their credentials were not recognized in this country. However, many did continue in their trades and professions. The Italian neighborhoods boasted restaurants, with food stands, bakeries, taprooms, grocery stores, barbers, tailors and shoemakers.
Saletta and Sebastian DiMeglio, from the island of Ischia, made wine. Their son, George, opened a taproom in Marcus Hook, and sons Frank and Philip a restaurant on Front Street in Chester. The restaurant also provided food stands at the Ford Plant for the workers’ lunch breaks.
One prime example of success is Augustine and Catherine DiCostanza’s grocery, established in Chester in 1925. The DiCostanza family believes that its grocery was the home of the original Chester Italian hoagie. Photos of the family and the original store hang in the current DiCostanza’s hoagie shop, which is still family-owned and -operated.
Some Italians went into business in non-Italian neighborhoods and did well, because they brought new skills to the area. Shoes were made to order from places like Romeo Begioni’s Shoe Repair in Upper Darby and the Darby Shoe Repair Service of Pasquale DiCristo in Darby.
Italian-American social clubs dot the county, from Wayne to Clifton Heights, and are significant in maintaining Italian culture and traditions in Delaware County.
Miracles have Delaware County connections, too. The Don Guanella School in Springfield was named for Rev. Luigi Guanella of Camo, Italy, and founded here by his missionary priests for disabled young men. According to the review by the Associated Press/NBC 10 Philadelphia in 2011, Guanella was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI. The last miracle needed for canonization came during Edgmont resident William Gleeson Jr.’s recovery from a head injury and coma. The operating neurosurgeon at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, Dr. Richard Buonocore of Newtown Square, testified to Catholic officials about the miracle, saying, “Throughout the whole process, there was divine intervention.”
Linda Mattia Houldin is the Delaware County Historical Society’s executive director, and Margaret F. Johnson is the organization’s library coordinator and assistant curator. Visit www.delcohistory.com.