The Italian American Dream

Italian Americans have made their mark on American history since arriving from Italy during the late 1880’s. By 1920, more than four million Italians called the U.S. their home. While the majority suffered prejudice and hardships, many were able to turn those difficult times into prosperity. Notable Italian immigrants and children of immigrants became successful businessmen and women contributing to the rapid growth of American business in the 20th century.

This year, La Gazzetta Italiana will highlight just a handful of the brave, intelligent and daring Italian immigrants who blazed their own trail in American business.

Their story began in the late 1800s in southern Italy. The country was nearing the end of the Risorgimento. The Expedition of the Thousand had occurred in 1860. As part of the Risorgimento, a corps of 1,000 volunteers led by Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed to Marsala, Sicily in order to conquer the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The successful expedition led to a referendum that brought Naples and Sicily into the Kingdom of Sardinia, the last territorial conquest before the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. By the late 1800s, economic hardships combined with political and social unrest forced many Italians to leave the country in search of a better life in America. The Aiello family of Bagheria, Sicily was among those immigrants. They settled in New York near the turn of the century.

By the early 1900s, most of the Aiello family had settled in New York City. Brothers Francesco and Carlo ran successful bakeries. Carlo also imported Italian products including canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Both items were food staples intrinsic to the cooking of the growing Italian population in NYC and the surrounding areas. By 1914, the onset of WWI was inevitable, and the Aiello family sensed an opportunity. A German blockade in the Atlantic stifled European exports leaving the Aiello’s and millions of other Americans without the ability to receive canned tomatoes from their homeland. At the time, there were no tomato canneries in the U.S.

The Aiello’s reached out to extended family in Sicily who ran a tomato canning business. They decided to use their experience to match the tomato quality of their native country. In 1914, Francesco and Carlo along with their brother-in-law, Anthony Gangi founded Aiello Brothers & Company and built a tomato canning factory in Highland, NY. They were the first U.S. producers of canned tomato paste.

Francesco’s wife suggested the company call their brand “Contadina,” which in Italian means “country girl” or “woman of the field.” She felt the name change would be more appealing to the Italian immigrant women who did the cooking for their families every day. 

While the Contadina company was successful early on, the brothers were not satisfied with the quality of their tomatoes. The short growing season in New York created an extra challenge, forcing them to harvest before the tomatoes were fully ripe which negatively impacted the color and flavor of their products. The brothers moved the company to San Jose, CA where the soil was rich, and the climate was similar to the famous tomato-growing regions of Italy. 

In 1918, a depiction of a smiling woman in a field of tomatoes was added to the logo. Donning a red dress, white apron and carrying a basket of tomatoes, the inspiration for the woman was the youngest Aiello sister, Rosalia Gangi. 

New partners invested in the brand during the 1920s and Contadina developed a reputation throughout the country for premium, “Italian” quality. In 1922, the Contadina brand won the first grand prize at an international exhibition in Milan for its exceptional tomato paste. 

As a brand, Contadina, today, remains a companion to cooks in kitchens everywhere with its commitment to high quality, authentic Italian flavor. And we have a family of Italian immigrants to thank for that.