Byline: Pam DeFiglio Daily Herald Staff Writer
Ron Onesti remembers being the young guy who bucked the establishment in the Italian-American community.
He suggested a different route for the Columbus Day parade in downtown Chicago, so more people could see it.
He proposed leaders mentor younger Italian Americans.
He had other good ideas. And he had credentials: in his 20s, he was president of the young adults division of a large Italian American association.
Mostly, the older leaders of the large civic and charitable organizations ignored him. Their response, if they gave one at all, was, "Let's just do it the way we've always done it."
It's attitudes like that that have left the Italian-American community facing a crisis.
Civic organizations have helped keep the Italian culture alive in Chicago and the suburbs for five generations. They've provided a structure to maintain the colorful heritage - from its elaborate religious feasts to its tortellini-filled banquets.
These groups have a rich history of their own, but if younger people don't start joining, the organizations may disappear.
Already, community experts say, many older leaders have held power so tightly they haven't given younger people a chance to get involved.
Onesti, 42, ultimately found his own way to stay active, launching Onesti Entertainment, a Chicago-based company that runs Italian-themed festivals in DuPage County and throughout the United States.
"These organizations keep doing the same old thing. They're going to die out," Onesti says. "But the good news is, all over the country, I'm seeing a lot of interest in learning about Italian culture."
'Set up these chairs!'
One look at the sheer number of these organizations illustrates how deeply they are entrenched in the community.
"Let's see," says Joanne Spata, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, "you have the religious societies, the charitable societies, the regional associations, the Maroons soccer club, eight different posts of Italian American War Veterans, the Italian Cultural Center, the Italian American Political Coalition, the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and the Italian American Chamber of Commerce."
She's just warming up, but you get the picture.
Getting involved is easy for older members of the community. Yet many younger people say they have trouble making their ideas heard.
"Younger people chafe at the fact the older ones won't let them take part in leadership," says Paul Basile, editor of Fra Noi, the monthly Italian-American newspaper in the Chicago area. "They tell them things like, 'Here, just set up these chairs!' "
Spata, 45, floated the idea of bringing in youth when she was elected president of the JCCIA, the umbrella group for the Italian community organizations. But older people told her they'd always held a certain job, like running a dinner dance to raise funds for the college scholarships their group offered.
"It's planned obsolescence if older people don't open these organizations to youth," Spata says. "Younger people come to meetings because they're interested, but then they say, 'This wasn't fun, so why should I do this?' "
Being able to joke about how badly papa mangled the English language, or brag about mama's pasta sauce, are some of the main reasons Italian Americans join these organizations. That, and the fact that no one ever questions why you're 30 and still living with your parents.
"People will understand you, and the importance of family and religion," says Dominic Candeloro, adjunct professor at Governors State University and author of the just-released "Chicago's Italians: Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans" (Arcadia, $24.99). "There are shared values. People feel comfortable with others whose mothers did the same …