Pueblo stays connected to its Italian heritage at Gagliano’s, other businesses

Vince Gagliano, a Pueblo native, refers to himself as a first-generation Italian-American and a fourth-generation grocer.

Since 1921, his family has run Gagliano’s Italian Market & Deli at 1220 Elm St. — a Pueblo staple. The store’s customer base consists of community members and out-of-towners who’ve either heard of its glowing reputation or “want a piece of home.”

Today, a drive through Pueblo takes visitors past Italian restaurants and businesses, with green, white and red flags flying. Residents are drawn to Gagliano’s and other Italian-American institutions — not only for their goods and services, but also for the cultural link they provide between the past and present.

Italians started making their new homes in Colorado in the 1850s. Pueblo in particular drew them and other immigrants to the city with its steel mill jobs at The Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., along with agricultural and smelting work, according to nonprofit Italian Sons & Daughters of America.

“By 1922, roughly one in five people living in Colorado was Italian American,” History Colorado reports. In 2019, the subgroup still made up around 5% of the population.

Gagliano — whose last name is properly pronounced “Galiano” — first spoke a Sicilian dialect of Italian before learning English at 5 years old. Living one block away from the store, he spent “every single day” at the family business, which is in the Bessemer neighborhood.

His bloodline’s legacy in Pueblo dates back to 1910 when, after leaving Sicily, his great-uncles opened grocery stores by the steel mill. Because of World War II, his grandfather moved to the Colorado city as a refugee in 1955, with his dad — a teenager at the time — in tow.

His cousins ran the current location until Gagliano, his Sicilian parents and sister took the reins in 1997. It’s since evolved from a simple grocery store — known for the Italian sausage the family’s made for 101 years — to a larger operation, selling homemade meatballs, lasagnas, Italian cookies and more. The business imports pasta, regional products and their family’s award-winning olive oil from Italy.

Five years ago, Gagliano also established a processing plant to produce sausage. “It’s tough work.”

Patrons who pop by the deli and market may meet Gagliano’s 83-year-old father, who will whip out a map of Italy to discuss family roots, or his mother, who directs operations from her chair. His wife bakes, while his teenage sons help with groceries.

Gagliano still considers southern Colorado a hub for Italian-Americans, with one of his boys learning the language in high school. But time will only tell if they’ll continue the family business.

“Everybody’s gotta have their own dreams, you know?” Gagliano said.

“A fascinating chapter of America”

Unlike New York City, Chicago and Boston, “Colorado isn’t the place that comes to mind when we think of Italian communities,” said Marianna Gatto, an Italian-American historian and executive director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. “It’s a fascinating chapter of America that we don’t emphasize or explore often enough.”

Her ancestors settled in Pueblo in 1898, and she resides in the city part-time. Her grandmother’s side — the Cortese family — comes from a little Sicilian town, Lucca Sicula, which is a sister city of Pueblo.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, residents of impoverished Italian villages were recruited to take part in booming American industries, such as agriculture, mining and railroads. Gatto’s relatives first landed in Louisiana to work in the sugar cane and cotton industries before laboring in Pueblo’s smelters and mills — and ultimately building homes in Colorado.

In highlighting Pueblo businesses that serve as cultural cornerstones, “at the top of the list is, of course, Gagliano’s,” Gatto said. The deli and market, along with La Tronica’s restaurant at 1143 E. Abriendo Ave., outwardly represent the Colorado Italian community, and once used cuisine to make the culture “a little less foreign” after the immigrant population resettled in the U.S.

Baseball and early entertainers, including singer Frank Sinatra, also warmed American perceptions of Italians, who were initially stereotyped “not in a positive light.”

“Folks like the Gagliano family are really doing a great service for the community because they’re the keepers of a lot of these traditions,” Gatto said. “There’s interest — I think, more so, these days — in preserving the history.”

Dawn DiPrince, executive director of History Colorado, characterized Pueblo’s Italian-American community as “very strong.” In the early 20th century, her forefathers and mothers resettled in southern Colorado, including Pueblo, to work in industries associated with The Colorado Fuel and Iron Co.

“I know these are the places where my ancestors walked, and that just feels like such a powerful connection to me,” she said.

The steel mill often served as a pathway to land ownership for immigrants, which explains the Italian-American community’s clear agricultural ties today, DiPrince said. She highlighted the popularity of Pueblo chiles — grown by area farms and used to spice up meatballs, sausage sandwiches, pizzas and other Italian dishes.

“Food is the ultimate history lesson,” DiPrince said. “The smells and the tastes can just transport you.”

When she passes Gagliano’s threshold, that exact sensation occurs, with aromas greeting her at the door. Family members — young and old — make special requests for the store’s goat cheese, lemon candies and more on her visits.

“Anytime I’m in Pueblo, I go to Gagliano’s,” DiPrince said, calling it an “extension of the Italian kitchen.”

Jerry Carleo, chairman of the Colorado Italian American Foundation, listed Gagliano’s, La Tronica’s, Gus’ Tavern and Star Bar as businesses run by Italian families over the years, with management now overseen by younger generations.

Growing up in Pueblo, “they were the places to go.” Attracted to its burgeoning steel industry, both sets of Carleo’s grandparents immigrated to the city he said was known as “the Little Pittsburgh of the West.”

His dad’s side hailed from southern Italy, while his mom’s half was rooted in Sicily. Carleo’s ancestors took different routes to settle in Colorado, with his maternal grandfather first traveling through New Orleans — whose wife eventually passed through Ellis Island in New York Harbor — and his paternal grandfather journeying through Toronto.

Carleo worked in Houston for a large oil firm before returning to his hometown, drawn back by the community’s shared values and deep family bonds.

“There’s a big rubber band around Pueblo,” he said. “You can run as hard and far as you want, and, ultimately, you get pulled back here. It’s just incredible.”

By offering scholarships and hosting events, Carleo and others like him are focused on instilling a sense of responsibility in their progeny to preserve their heritage — and prevent its diminishment to “something that you read about in a couple of chapters in a history book.”

How important is it to keep Pueblo’s Italian-American restaurants, bakeries and corner bars alive and thriving? “On a scale from one to 10, it’s about a 50, because they represent the fabric of the ancestry and the history” of the city’s evolution.

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