One of the oldest continuously active Italian clubs in the United States is the Italian Workmen’s Club at 914 Regent Street in Madison. The building is one of only a few still standing from the old Greenbush neighborhood. Nearly 100 years ago, it was the cultural and social center of the neighborhood, where everything from wedding receptions to funerals were held. Built in 1922 by volunteer members of the Club, the building was designated a Madison Landmark in 1990.
In the early 1900s, a group of Sicilian men came to the United States to escape starvation and unemployment. But life here was still difficult. One of the immigrants, Theodore Paratore, learned from a friend in Chicago that Italians there had organized a mutual benefit society to help the new arrivals. So he did the same for his fellow Madison Sicilians, and Club Lavoratori Italiani Sicilia was born in 1912. Charter membership included 43 men.
The Club provided aid to members who were ill or injured in accidents and also offered a death benefit. “That’s what they did back in the Old Country,” says David Rizzo, immediate past president of the Italian Workmen’s Club. “And that was the right thing to do in this new land.”
Today, the Club’s mission is to preserve and promote the history, culture, language, and traditions of Italians and Italian Americans. Social opportunities encourage Club members to embrace their Italian heritage. Members also engage with the surrounding community to increase awareness of and appreciation for the achievements, honors, and contributions of their ancestors.
At the turn of the 20th century, these Italian ancestors experienced a great deal of discrimination in Madison, whose residents were mainly German, English, and Norwegian. The housing that was available to the new immigrants was in a swampy area off Lake Monona bounded by West Washington Avenue and Park and Regent Streets: Greenbush.
Finding work was not an easy task. Few places were willing to employ these Italian men. Regardless, they became hardworking laborers in order to survive and to earn enough to bring their families to Madison. John Icke, the city engineer and later a private contractor, employed Italian workers in both city and private jobs. Some were stonecutters who worked on the State Capitol and Wisconsin Historical Society buildings. During winter, the men worked in the nearby tobacco warehouses.
The clubhouse, a vernacular style architecture reflecting local traditions and cultural practices, was constructed of brick and mortar with steel trusses. Bricks in reds, browns, and sandy golds were used. Ever the benefactor, Mr. Icke loaned shovels, tools, and other equipment to Club members who worked weekends on the construction of the clubhouse. Only the assembly of the steel framework was done by paid labor.
The front of the building was extended 15 feet in 1936 to accommodate a larger entrance and bathrooms. In subsequent years, repairs were made to the brick work. Better insulation was installed in the ceiling. The old roof has been replaced with a metal one. “We have never done anything to change the outside look of the building, which has been the same for nearly 100 years,” says David.
The original building had a kitchenette. Members within walking distance of the clubhouse would bring food from their homes for potluck meals. A stage in the building accommodated bands that played for wedding dances. In the mid-1970s, the stage was removed and replaced with a full-size kitchen, recently remodeled.
“Today the walls in the building are covered with maps and artifacts of the old Greenbush neighborhood and stories of the early days. You can see pictures of resident families from the 1920s and 1930s gathered for summer picnics,” David says. “We have a wine press, old as the building itself, to press grapes and make wine that we drink at our membership meetings.”
Members of the Italian Workmen’s Club stayed with their heritage and conducted meetings in Italian until 1948. After that, English was the official language because many of the younger members preferred it to their native tongue.
Utmost loyalty to the United States was demonstrated by Club members who were prime purchasers of war bonds during World War II. More than 40 members served in the armed forces during that war.
A custom of early members was to stage a Columbus Day parade from Park and Regent Streets to the Capitol Park and back. The Club band led the parade. Heading the band was Tony Piazza, Sam Piazza, and Joe Stassi, the only ones who could read music. “My grandfather Sam and great uncle Tony had been in a circus band. Sam, who was a shoemaker by trade, played an accordion,” says Norm Piazza.
In 1982, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Italian Workmen’s Cub, a traditional 4th of July picnic became a Regent Street block party and the precursor to Festa Italia. The day began with an outdoor Mass. Prizes were awarded. Italian dancers performed. A marker at the corners of Park and Regent Streets commemorating the original Italian community was dedicated. Bands played and the community danced. “The celebration was what one might think of as an old-world Italian party. Street vendors served food and drink—pasta, sausage, and wine,” says David. Today, Festa Italia has moved to McKee Farms Park in Fitchburg, and it has become a three-day event always held the weekend after Memorial Day, May 29 to May 31 in 2020.
“Club membership has been stable at 160 for the past few years. Our youngest is 21 and the oldest is 93, with an average age of 57 according to a membership analysis,” says David. “Monthly business meetings are followed by a meal prepared by our members. We average about 60 members per meeting and are very happy with the participation. It’s a nice time to get together and share stories of bygone days.” Any man interested in becoming a member of the Club needs to be sponsored, and must be at least one-eighth Italian or be married to a women of Italian heritage. The Club hosts beginning, intermediate, and advanced language classes in the fall and spring to members of the public interested in learning Italian.
Members of the Italian Workmen’s Club are charitable, giving $5,000 to $8,000 in scholarships to deserving high school seniors of Italian ancestry who plan to attend a two- or four-year higher education program. Additionally, the Club raises $3,000 a year for the Badger Childhood Cancer Network exclusively through its golf outing.
Urban renewal in the early 1960s resulted in the razing of the old Greenbush neighborhood, and Italian families were scattered to different parts of Madison. But the feeling of family was strong among members of the Club, and as Historic Madison, Inc. notes, “The Italian Workmen’s Club remains a symbol of mutual help—inspired by necessity in a strange land in an earlier day.”
Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.