Italian Consulate Reception 2016 with Consul General Lorenzo Ortona. Photo courtesy of Nickolas Marinelli
Italian Consulate Reception 2016 with Consul General Lorenzo Ortona. Photo courtesy of Nickolas Marinelli

October is officially National Italian Heritage Month in the U.S. Italian Heritage Month has been celebrated in America since 1999 and was designated by Presidential Proclamation. This month is chosen to coincide with Columbus Day in October and the festivities associated with this occasion. 

This celebration of all that is Italian is an opportunity for people of Italian ancestry to take pride in their culture and celebrate both Italian achievements and the lives that Italians have built in America. It is estimated that there are now over 17 million people with Italian ancestry living in the United States. They account for 5.4 percent of the U.S. population and are the fourth largest European ethnic group in the country. Approximately 84 percent of Italian Americans have origins in southern Italy and Sicily. Modern Italian American culture is influenced by both Italian and American traditions, lifestyle, and history.

San Francisco has been an important stronghold for Italians since the 1800s. In 1858, Nicola Larco, a prominent member of the Italian colony of San Francisco, became founding president of La Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, the Italian Mutual Benefit Society. It was the first such Italian society in the United States.

Some years later, Larco established San Francisco’s first Columbus Day celebration with an inaugural parade taking place in San Francisco’s downtown. It featured bands and marching units of Italian fraternal organizations, including the Garibaldi Guard, Swiss Guards and Lafayette Guards. Four floats were featured; one with
the statute of Christopher Columbus, the second featuring two girls representing Spain and America, the third depicting the “Santa Maria” with a sailor dressed as Christopher Columbus, and the fourth honoring Italian gardeners and their agricultural achievements.

City Hall Photo Op (seated left to right) SF Police Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco, ICI Director Paolo Barlera, Consul General Ortona, Mrs. Sheila Ortona). Photo Courtesy Nickolas Marinelli

Other notable years for San Francisco’s Italian community were: 1909 when California declared October 12 a legal holiday known as “Discovery Day”; 1911 when Assemblyman De Negri of San Francisco introduced legislation to name the holiday “Columbus Day”; and 1910 when President William Howard Taft declared October 12 as a legal national holiday.  

In 1915, the San Francisco Columbus Day Committee was organized by the Salesian Fathers of St. Peter and Paul’s Church in North Beach. The celebration grew to include activities such as a formal Grand Ball and a ceremony where a young man and woman are selected by the community to be crowned as the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to preside over the festivities. And so it continued over many decades until 1994 when the Columbus Day Parade evolved into the Italian Heritage Parade in an effort to celebrate the accomplishments and culture of all Italians and Italian-Americans.

This brings us to 2016 when San Francisco’s Italian-American community celebrated its 148th Italian Heritage Parade on October 9. It featured Italian and Italian-American dignitaries, music, performances, floats and representatives of Italian and Italian-American organizations and businesses. This year, Alexandra Cotroneo was Queen Isabella, Joseph Cervetto was Columbus and the Parade Grand Marshals were Paul Tonelli and Brian Boitano. San Francisco celebrated in style at numerous events throughout the City including the Italian Consulate Reception on October 7, and the Grand Ball, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, on October 8.

The 2016 Italian Heritage month, is coming to a close, and although San Francisco’s major Italian heritage events have passed, there is no need to slow down because there are plenty of ways to keep the momentum going with activities like those described below. In particular, the Italian Cultural Institute offers events all year long. The Institute is located at 601 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Visit their website at

One of the Institute’s events will be Omaggio a Firenze, A Tribute to Florence, which begins on November 3 and continues through December 2. This event will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic days of the 1966 flood and the heroic efforts to salvage Florence’s many treasures. There will be a selection of contemporary photographs and a book presentation by Mike Nelsen, exploring the beauty of Florence, juxtaposed with color lithographs by Luciano Guarnieri, depicting scenes from the 1966 flood.

The Italian Film Festival of Marin County has grown over its 40 years into a perennial favorite in the San Francisco Bay Area. Several days of film are still available for 2016 including October 29 and closing night on November 5.  October 29 the Festival will present the comedy “What A Beautiful Surprise”, (“Ma Che Bella Sorpresa”), starring the great comic actor, Claudio Bisio.

 November 5 is the festival’s closing night with the drama, “Another South”, (“Una Storia Sbagliata”), a powerful story about a nurse from Sicily. Visit the festival website at

San Francisco’s Italian Film Festival, at the Vogue Theater, will take place from November 16th to the 20th. New Italian Cinema is presented by the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco  and New Italian Cinema Events of Florence, Italy (N.I.C.E). The festival will screen seven dramas by up and coming directors, competing for the City of Florence Award; three award-winning documentaries; and five new dramas by veteran directors. Visit the festival website at http://www.

Receive more stories like this in your inbox