Tampa’s rich Italian community has a long heritage and tradition. Italy retains its place in the hearts and minds of generations of people who left Europe to chase and attain the American dream in Tampa.
For more than 100 years, the Italian Club in Ybor City has been the headquarters of the neighborhood’s large Italian community. In the late 19th century, many Italian immigrants came to this cigar town, primarily from the province of Agrigento in Sicily. They formed a mutual aid society to support their members as they were integrated into the American way of life.
The Italian club was founded in April of 1894. The original members of the club included 116 Italian and eight Spanish immigrants. The first building for the club was built in 1911 but was destroyed in a large fire in May 1914. The Italian club was rebuilt in 1918 and it still stands today in the heart of Ybor city.
The Italian Club was Tampa’s second mutual aid society, after the Centro Español. Mutual aid societies were a cornerstone for the immigrant communities as they provided basic needs for their members, including health care, a community amongst other people from their country of origin, and a variety of social and entertainment opportunities.
Members of the club received access to basic medical care and an allowance for prescriptions along with the option of purchasing burial insurance. In an age where medical and life insurance did not exist, these were enticing reasons to become a member.
Besides medical care, the Italian club offered many social activities. The club sponsored family picnics, group excursions, parades, sporting competitions, and theatrical performances. The clubhouse contained a theater, club café, doctor’s offices and clinic, a laboratory, a drug dispensary, library, and dance hall. The Italian club today still hosts many events of all types to its members and to the public.
In addition to offering a cultural center and a place to socialize, the Italian club functioned as a point of entry for newly arriving immigrants who are able to obtain information about employment, housing, and city bureaucracy.
The club has had nearly 40 presidents in its history. Many of them have played significant roles in the political history of Tampa. They have influenced elections and have been active in electing Mayors, City Councilmen, County Commissioners, Judges, and many other powerful positions in Tampa. The Italian Club has had a long lasting effect on helping shape the political landscape of Tampa.
Tampa offered a unique setting for Italian immigrants. In Ybor City, they learned Spanish, rolled cigars, flirted with and embraced radical political ideologies, and much more. The Italian club, however, offered a little piece of home in a new country.