A park named Omaha, on Italian island of Sicily, signals revived partnership
Descendants of century-old immigration pipeline seek to cement ‘sister city’ status with Carlentini
Carlentini dedicated its new “Parco Omaha” in honor of its sister city relationship and unveiled it during the Omahans’ trip in August, said Sicula Foundation’s Sheri Kanger. People gather, vendors sell goods and others can walk along the pathways of the multitiered park. (Courtesy of Carlentini Omaha Association)
OMAHA — On a distant Italian island whose roots are shared by thousands of Omahans of Sicilian descent is a new and elaborate park carved into a cliffside: Parco Omaha.
Also in that Sicilian town of Carlentini, a visiting Omaha artist is busy creating a podcast series expected not only to spotlight native treasures but also spark business and civic exchanges.
Meanwhile, a real estate-focused team with voices from both Omaha and Carlentini is exploring redevelopment of a cluster of Mussolini-era buildings into a haven for destination weddings and other retreats.
It all points to a resurging relationship between a pair of cities that began more than a century ago, when an emigration wave sent nearly half the population of Carlentini — about 3,500 people – across the Atlantic Ocean to America to work, with the biggest share settling in Omaha.
The Carlentini-Omaha connection ramped up last year after younger generations’ thirst to better know the motherland led to an effort, under the nonprofit Sicula Italia Foundation, to form an official sister city partnership.
Sicula Italia Foundation fundraiser Speaker: Vince Ferragamo, former Husker and NFL QB Featured entertainer: Sebastian Anzaldo Sings Sinatra, Omaha native So far, the umbrella sister city entity has granted the pair “friendship” status, a precursor to the full-fledged rank held by Omaha sister cities in Japan, Lithuania, China, Germany, Ireland and Mexico. Those pushing for the higher designation say it would add clout to grant requests and university sharing opportunities. But leaders are moving forward, nonetheless, to foster commercial and cultural swaps. Youths from the two cities, for instance, already meet virtually for educational adventures. People from both sides attend weekly Zoom sessions led by genealogy experts. Mayors have traded visits. A contingent of Omahans converged this past summer in Carlentini, now with a population of 17,000, to meet relatives and to celebrate the traditional festival of Santa Lucía. On Dec. 9, Omahans will host their largest fundraiser yet to support their mission and scholarships — “A Night in Sicily,” featuring entertainers and speakers of Italian heritage.
Sicula Italia Foundation fundraiser
Speaker: Vince Ferragamo, former Husker and NFL QB
Featured entertainer: Sebastian Anzaldo Sings Sinatra, Omaha native
So far, the umbrella sister city entity has granted the pair “friendship” status, a precursor to the full-fledged rank held by Omaha sister cities in Japan, Lithuania, China, Germany, Ireland and Mexico.
Those pushing for the higher designation say it would add clout to grant requests and university sharing opportunities. But leaders are moving forward, nonetheless, to foster commercial and cultural swaps.
Youths from the two cities, for instance, already meet virtually for educational adventures. People from both sides attend weekly Zoom sessions led by genealogy experts.
Mayors have traded visits. A contingent of Omahans converged this past summer in Carlentini, now with a population of 17,000, to meet relatives and to celebrate the traditional festival of Santa Lucía.
On Dec. 9, Omahans will host their largest fundraiser yet to support their mission and scholarships — “A Night in Sicily,” featuring entertainers and speakers of Italian heritage.
Organizers hope it draws attention to the bond that can be traced back to the arrival, at the turn of the 20th century, of Carlentini-born brothers Giuseppe and Sebastiano Salerno.
Credited with directing the greatest influx of their fellow townsmen to Omaha, the Salernos spurred the growth of a local ethnic group that has produced elected officials, judges, doctors, police officers, teachers, entertainers.
Current data from the American Community Survey shows about 50,000 people in the metro area who claim Italian ancestry. Local officials believe about two-thirds of them descend from Carlentini and neighboring Lentini.
Among them are Sicula Italia Foundation members such as Sheri Kanger, Carmelita de la Guardia, Charlie Venditte and David Randall, each representing a different version of growing up Italian American in Omaha.
In fact, the four were mostly strangers before they and others united behind the sister city project — an effort that is forging connections among homegrown Carlentinesi as well as with brethren abroad.
David Randall, at age 54, is too young to have met his great-great-grandfather Giuseppe Salerno, though Randall learned plenty from older relatives about the “padrone” of Omaha’s Little Italy enclave.
According to family lore, and backed up by historical accounts, Giuseppe was beckoned to Omaha in 1895 by his brother-in-law, fruit merchant Antonio Marfisi. A cobbler by trade, Giuseppe opened a shoe shop and soon called for his own brother, Sebastiano, to join him in Omaha.
The Salernos added clothing and grocery stores to their investments. Then Sebastiano landed a job with a steamship company, which took him back to Carlentini to recruit workers to increase passenger traffic between Sicily and American ports.
It’s during that period that Omaha saw a corresponding surge in newcomers from Carlentini and Lentini, says “The Italians of Omaha” historical account prepared for the Order of Sons of Italy in 1941.
The Salerno brothers established a group of boarding houses around Sixth and Pierce Streets, the heart of the ethnic colony, for incoming townsmen who typically started out in railroad and packing plant jobs.
The siblings even opened a private bank that was said to return a high rate of interest to customers.
In 1924, however, the bank was shuttered “under the weight of over-expansion in speculative ventures,” according to the Sons of Italy report. A disgruntled customer who had lost his savings tracked down the fallen bank’s president, Sebastiano, in California and fatally shot him.
Giuseppe’s son, Antonio, went on to marry Louise Pirruccello — better known to David Randall as his great-grandmother.
Randall recalled Louise’s own business acumen. He said she owned and operated Trentino’s restaurant at 10th and Pacific Streets, later the site of Angie’s Steakhouse and now the Blue Barn Theatre, with her husband and sister for over 20 years. She then opened the Italian Gardens restaurant near Sixth Street and Poppleton Avenue.
But Randall remembers her more for instilling in him a pride and curiosity about his heritage.
“She died when I was 19, but she’s the one who told me all these stories growing up,” said Randall, who was raised in Little Italy.
He said urging from his grandmother Sarah Salerno Taylor (Louise’s daughter) sent him on his first voyage to Carlentini 15 years ago. He visited nostalgic places like the school his great-grandmother attended before she, as a child, immigrated with her family to Omaha.
So when Randall, working in the biotech industry in Las Vegas, happened to see a Facebook post last year about the Omaha-Carlentini sister city effort, he immediately reached out.
Sheri Kanger, upon meeting Randall and learning of his Salerno roots, swiftly recruited him to be part of the Sicula group.
Sheri Kanger and Carmelita de la Guardia, who represent opposite ends of the immigration journey, lived for decades in Omaha without ever meeting. Now they’re in contact almost daily, and are driving forces behind the sister city pursuit.
The two recalled how their connection began:
Kanger, 52, does not speak Sicilian like her grandfather, but after Alfio Ruma passed and she bought his South Omaha home in 2015, she was pulled more to their ancestral past.
Two years later, she and her husband, Ken, traveled to Carlentini for the first time, met relatives and had their 25-year marriage blessed.
Yearning for more, Kanger, a teacher, began to plan a group tour to coincide with Carlentini’s 400th anniversary of its Santa Lucia Festival.
Meanwhile, de la Guardia’s cousin, who lives in Carlentini, told her that a woman named Sheri from Omaha was planning to bring a large tour group to town.
It had been more than a half century since de la Guardia, as a child, left her birthplace after disaster struck her dad’s orange orchard. But she remained fluent in the language, and still visited Carlentini, where she owned property and maintained close ties with family.
De la Guardia contacted Kanger, and the two clicked.
“I told Carmelita that my grandfather’s cousins are in Carlentini,” Kanger recalled. “She said, ‘We’re probably related.’ ”
The duo has since teamed up to discuss the sister city project on various shows hosted by both Omahans and Sicilians. They helped plan activities when Carlentini officials recently visited Omaha and were key ambassadors when the group of nearly 100 Omahans, including Mayor Jean Stothert, went to Carlentini in August.
A professional pianist and singer, de la Guardia became featured entertainment during the related Santa Lucia celebration in Carlentini.
Recalling bullying by certain classmates in Omaha who saw her as an outsider when she was young, de la Guardia said music had become a vehicle to reclaim her roots and pride.
She organizes storytelling productions during which local Italians reveal rich histories.
When de la Guardia took center stage during the festival in Carlentini, she imagined her deceased mother and father listening as she sang Italian favorites such as “O Sole Mio.”
Residents of her hometown, joined by Omahans who included her daughters, packed the town square.
“It was magic,” de la Guardia said. “It was something I had dreamt about all my life.”
For Charlie Venditte, the sister city linkage honors and punctuates the more than 120 years of Sicilian history in Omaha.
A retired police officer working as the Douglas County attorney’s investigator, Venditte, 69, is far from the oldest rung of Carlentini descendants, but he’s tied to two of the area’s earliest and largest Italian immigrant families.
And he’s had a front seat for much of the ethnic community’s evolution.
Venditte’s mom, Fena Caniglia Venditte, was the first queen of the Santa Lucia Festival in Omaha, which started locally in 1925 and was carried over from the homeland.
Venditte married a girl from the neighborhood, Mary Montello, whose family also has Sicilian roots.
The couple started their family in Little Italy. Now empty nesters, they restored a small house in the old neighborhood, across the street from the Santa Lucia Hall that’s used for community gatherings.
Indeed, Venditte and others note that recent sister city energy is happening only because of decades of heritage-building activity by long-standing groups such as the Santa Lucia Festival Committee, the American Italian Heritage Society and the Sons and Daughters of Italy.
Venditte is a member of all three organizations, regularly attending spaghetti feeds at the renovated Sons of Italy Hall and volunteering at Santa Lucia celebrations that lure thousands from broader Omaha. Two other original Sicula members, Todd Procopio and Al Vacanti, also are active in the older groups.
To be sure, much has changed in the enclave since the Salerno brothers built boarding houses for the newly arrived. Just south of downtown Omaha and near the developing riverfront, the Little Italy area has become home to an increasing amount of trendy housing, and real estate prices and rents reflect the area’s popularity.
Still, Venditte said he gets a familiar warm vibe when he walks the neighborhood and shops at places like Orsi’s Italian Bakery & Pizzeria, whose outside wall is covered by a freshly painted mural depicting Italian settlement in Omaha.
He frequently attends daily Mass at Little Italy’s St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where four generations of Vendittes were married.
Brothers, cousins, nieces and nephews still live in the area. Venditte can point out homes of longtime residents as well as younger generations who have moved into their childhood homes or built anew.
“It’s great the way it’s thriving again,” said Venditte. “But to have just one day back with all those old-timers we grew up with and around, I’d give anything for that.”
Buoyed by technology such as virtual meeting rooms, Venditte and other foundation members see the time as ripe for more interaction with their Italian counterparts a 5,000-mile flight away.
De la Guardia is eager for daughter Lita’s Carlentini-based podcast, “Building Bridges: The Sister Cities Connection,” to spur conversation and introduce Omahans to products such as her birthplace’s blood oranges.
Randall is hopeful that talks between Omahans and Carlentini Mayor Giuseppi Stefio’s team will lead to real estate ventures that step up tourism.
Carlentini officials have affirmed their mutual excitement, as well, with gestures such as dedicating in Omaha’s name the city’s new multi-tiered, artisan-filled park.
“We’ve had so many ideas rolling in our heads,” said Sheri Kanger. “Connecting with your heritage is enriching. It gives pride and makes you feel whole.”
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