Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Little Sicily, Chicago: The Saloon on Gault Court

Early in the 20th Century, before Prohibition and the Outfit, there were two Sicilian Mafia territories in Chicago: Little Italy and Little Sicily. Little Italy was in the Near West Side of Chicago, close to the heart of the city.

The Italian neighborhoods in Chicago

The Mafia that dominated Little Italy were led by the Genna brothers from Marsala, Sicily. North of the Genna stronghold was Goose Island, home to an Irish gang, and on the other side of the island was the Near North Side’s Little Sicily neighborhood. Mariano Zagone, a counterfeiter from Palermo, is the earliest known Mafia boss of Chicago’s Little Sicily. Following Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers of Corleone ruled Little Sicily. 

Gault Court, the center of operations for the Mafia in Little Sicily, is just west of the southern tip of Goose Island, in the center of this 1910 map.

Little Sicily no longer exists. Once called “Little Hell” for the gasworks nearby, these streets have been renamed over the years, and the shanty housing occupied by a series of immigrant communities was razed and rebuilt as in the 1940-50s as the Cabrini-Green high-rise public housing apartments. The contrast between the poverty of this neighborhood and the opulence of the Gold Coast immediately to its east, on the shore of Lake Michigan, has been documented for over a hundred years. 

Corleonesi began to move into the neighborhood just before the turn of the 20th century. The most significant extended family to the local Mafia were the Spataforas. Gioachino Spatafora immigrated from Corleone in 1898 with his wife, Biagia “Bessie” Cutrone, and their children. Gioachino’s nephew, Giuseppe Nicolosi, operated a saloon on Gault Court (today called Cambridge Avenue). Mariano Zagone, the Mafia boss, treated the saloon as his own headquarters.

In 1902, Gioachino was dead, and his widow had remarried to Zagone. (Rumor has it Zagone seduced her before Spatafora’s death.) Gioachino and Bessie’s daughter, Leoluchina, who was called Laura Spatafora, married her cousin, Giuseppe Nicolosi. A few years later, Giuseppe’s brother, Carmelo, joined them on Gault Court.

The Nicolosi brothers and their first cousins who lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily

On four different occasions between 1902 and 1909, people tried to kill Mariano Zagone, once shooting Laura’s brother, Vincenzo, by accident. It was another brother, Joseph Spatafora, who succeeded in killing his stepfather by gunning him down at the Nicolosi saloon. After Zagone’s murder, the Nicolosi brothers took over the Mafia in Little Sicily.

The Nicolosi brothers, and the children of Gioachino Spatafora, had another mutual set of first cousins in Little Sicily: the Collettis. In 1906, Carmelo Nicolosi and his wife escorted their cousin Leoluchina Colletti, who was joining her brothers, Giuseppe and Rosario, in Chicago. Traveling with them on the Perugia was Rosaria Maria Varca, the mother-in-law of New York City mafioso Mariano Marsalisi.

1906 Perugia manifest, bottom left, shows passengers 24-29 are from Corleone. Line 24 is Maria Rosaria Varca, Marsalisi’s mother-in-law. Bernardo Vernagallo, who is Gioachino Lima’s brother-in-law on line 26, did not sail.
1906 Perugia manifest, bottom right shows the passengers’ destination contacts. The Chicago-bound passengers are all going to addresses on Gault Court.

There was another significant family from Corleone in Little Sicily. Antonino Marino arrived in the United States in 1894 and moved his family to New York for a few years before arriving in Chicago, when his son Angelo was born in 1906. In 1907, Antonino welcomed two young women, his nieces, who arrived on the Hamburg. There were six passengers from Corleone on this voyage: Marino’s nieces, a Spatafora cousin and her husband destined for Chicago, and my relatives, Lucia Soldano and her brother Tony, going to New York. 

1907 Hamburg manifest, first page shows passengers 21-26 are from Corleone. The first four are going to Chicago and the last two, my relatives, are going to New York. The names that appear to the right are their nearest relatives in their home country.
1907 Hamburg manifest, second page, contains destination contact information for the same passengers.

At least one of Antonino Marino’s visiting nieces has family ties to the Mafia. Lucia Canzoneri’s nephew, Leoluca Billeri, was a defendant at the 1969 Mafia trial in Bari, Italy. Her future husband, Carmelo Palazzo, immigrated to the United States in 1906 in the company of the newlywed son-in-law of a Fratuzzi member. Palazzo gave Mariano Marsalisi’s New York address as his destination. 

In Chicago in 1911, Marino’s six-year old son, Angelo, was lured away by neighbors on Gault Court and held for ransom. Among those responsible were the Nicolosi brothers, who later stood trial for the kidnapping, and their wives. Laura Spatafora’s sister-in-law, Paola Pomilla, was the ringleader, who returned the child an hour later, after Marino paid $500 to the brothers (more than $13K in 2021 dollars).

The Spatafora cousin on the Hamburg, Leoluchina Vutera, and her husband Paolo Fucarino were joining Leoluchina’s brother, Giuseppe in Chicago. In 1919, Paolo was a widower, but he remained close to his wife’s family. On his return from a trip to Sicily with his children, Paolo calls Carmelo Nicolosi his cousin and destination contact. Giuseppe Morello and Santo Calamia used a similar sleight of hand to stretch their in-law of an in-law relationship when Calamia visited Morello in prison.

The Marino and Spatafora families appear to have been close enough to travel halfway around the world together in 1907, at serious odds in 1911, and reconciled again by the latter years of Prohibition. In 1928, the Mafia of Little Sicily was allied to Joe Aiello, who had taken over Little Italy and the Unione Siciliane from the Gennas. Together they fought the encroachment of the Outfit into their neighborhood fiefdoms. Two of the last Corleonesi gangsters from this era are second cousins Sam and John Oliveri.

Sam Oliveri was born Salvatore Oliveri to a borgese (middle-class, as distinguished from a contadino or countryman) father and an unknown mother. Oliveri was a representative at the Cleveland Conference and later associated with the Mafia in Rockford, Illinois. Sam’s uncle is Andrea Oliveri of New York: an important early mafioso in East Harlem, and father-in-law of Tommy Reina. When he first immigrated in 1912, Sam went to Andrea’s son in New York City. By World War I, he and his second cousin, Giovanni “John” Oliveri both lived in Chicago’s Little Sicily. 

Sam and John Oliveri married sisters, Jennie and Stella Marino. The Marino sisters nieces of Antonino Marino, whose son was kidnapped by the Nicolosis. Antonino and his brother immigrated together through New Orleans in 1894. Stella was born there around 1895. The family moved north to Chicago, where Jennie (Vincenza) was born, three years later. 

John Oliveri lived on Cambridge Avenue in 1918 when he registered for the draft. When he became a naturalized citizen, Joe Nicolosi—Giuseppe—was one of the witnesses. John was killed by Capone’s men in 1928. 

Sam Oliveri moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he convinced a funeral home operator to make him a co-owner. The Gasparini & Oliveri Funeral Home was Oliveri’s Mafia headquarters in Rockford. Sam died in 1969. Oliveris continue to own and operate the funeral home today.

Chicago Joe Aiello

Chicago Joe Aiello

While Al Capone’s Outfit was fighting its way to the top of Chicago’s underworld, one of his chief rivals was the mafioso Joe Aiello. Aiello was president of the Unione Siciliane, synonymous with the Mafia in Chicago. For this reason alone, he earned the title of “the boss of the Sicilian Mafia in Prohibition-Era Chicago.” Beyond the Windy City, Aiello had powerful friends in Detroit and New York City, where he affected the outcome of the 1930 Castellammarese War. 

Joe was born Giuseppe Aiello in Bagheria, a suburb of Palermo, in 1890. At seventeen, he sailed to New York, joining two older brothers, Nunzio and Andrea, upstate in Utica. A halfway point between Lake Ontario and Albany along the Mohawk River, Utica drew a large immigrant population to work in manufacturing and transport. Among them were Sicilian merchants, some of them associated through family and business ties with the nascent Mafia in Utica. Fruit wholesalers, in particular, were closely tied to one another and organized crime. It may have been while Aiello lived in Utica that he formed ties with the Maggadino Family in Buffalo. 

Joe Aiello and his partner in a Utica saloon, Sam La Fada, were charged in 1917 with firing upon Antonio Gagliano, a competing saloon owner. Aiello tried hiding from the police in the home of his father- and brother-in-law, who were charged with interfering with a police officer. Aiello was found in possession of a recently fired handgun, and a license to carry. La Fada was killed in Buffalo a few months later.

It’s often reported that Aiello left Utica after taking part in the 1917 shooting. Joe was married to Caterina Amara. Their daughter, Lena, was born late in 1918. Son Carlo was born in Utica in 1919. A news item about the scalding death of Joe’s daughter, in March 1921, shows the family still living on Bleecker Street in Utica. Two and a half year-old Lena Aiello ran into her mother and maternal grandmother, who had just boiled water for the family’s baths. She survived for five hours.

Joe moved his family to Chicago shortly after this tragedy. Their next child, Antonino, was born in Chicago in July 1922.

Joe’s brothers moved to Chicago ahead of him, starting with the oldest, Nunzio, who married there in 1916. Andrea, also married, registered for the draft from a Near North Side address the following year. Nunzio’s address on Locust Street was in Little Sicily, also in Chicago’s Near North Side. 

In the years leading up to Prohibition, Chicago’s criminal underworld was still broken up into neighborhood territories. “Big Jim” Colosimo’s network of brothels was beginning to encroach on these boundaries, but there was not yet a monopoly on criminal power, and there was no overarching leadership: not among organized criminals, nor even among mafiosi in the city.

 The Genna brothers, from Marsala, Sicily, were one of the earliest Mafia families in Chicago. They were based in Little Italy, in the Near West Side. To the east of the Genna territory was Goose Island, where the Irish North Side Gang ruled. The Gennas controlled the Unione Siciliane and fought the Irish gang, led by Dean O’Banion. On the other side of Goose Island was Little Sicily, where a Corleonese Mafia family was dominant. The Nicolosi brothers ruled from their Gault Court saloon, a territory they inherited from their murdered father-in-law.

In Chicago, the Aiello family worked for the railroads, then became fruit dealers, and owned bakeries and at least one confectionery shop. Father Carlo Aiello, a fruit merchant, arrived from Bagheria in 1920 and died in Chicago three years later. 

Joe Aiello began his ascent to power by partnering with Antonio Lombardo of the Unione, but then alienated his patron when he made an alliance with Bugs Moran, who was O’Banion’s successor in the North Side Gang. The Gennas were killed by the Irish gang in 1925. Joe and his brothers took over the old Genna brothers’ territory: in particular, control of the Unione. Allied to the North Side, the Aiello gang became prominent targets for Al Capone’s Outfit. 

The Outfit was never part of the Sicilian Mafia. Its members were engaged in organized crime, and most of them were Italian or Italian-American, but they were not part of the same organization as the Genna, Nicolosi, and Aiello families, who all came from Sicily. Only after the Commission was formed, after the Castellammarese War, did the Outfit become part of an American Mafia, on equal footing with Sicilian American Mafia families.

By 1927, the tension between the Outfit and Joe Aiello’s family reached a breaking point. The Aiello family bakery in Little Sicily was riddled with bullets in a drive-by attack. Joe, who had already made multiple attempts on Capone’s life, was forced to leave Chicago. Regardless, he won the presidency of the Unione Siciliane the following year. In 1928, Aiello enjoyed the support of the Nicolosi brothers, but their representative at the Cleveland Conference, Sam Oliveri, lost a brother to Capone’s men, and was afterward suspected by police of brokering a new deal that cut out the Aiello family.

The power that emanated from New York City was felt everywhere by the Mafia. Al Capone and several of his closest associates in the Outfit were from New York. One of them was “Little Davey” Petillo, a native of New York City. As a young man, Petillo worked with Lucky Luciano as a hitman, narcotics trafficker, and pimp. After working for Joe Aiello in Chicago, Petillo rejoined his New York associates in the Outfit, and was Al Capone’s bodyguard at Aiello’s death in 1930.

Meanwhile in New York City, Joe “The Boss” Masseria’s power was growing and threatened to encompass all Mafia activity in the United States. Aiello had long been aligned with Salvatore Maranzano and the other mafiosi from Castellammare del Golfo, including Gaspar Milazzo in Detroit, and Maggadino in Buffalo: both Mafia bosses who’d started out in the Castellammarese stronghold of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Masseria came to openly support Capone’s bid for control over Chicago, widening the partisan divide throughout the Mafia in America, in the lead up to the Castellammarese War. Aiello financed Maranzano’s campaign against Masseria through the summer, before falling to Capone’s hitmen in October. Joe was forty.

Lucky Luciano turned on first Masseria, and then Maranzano, before assuming a consciously more modest position than either predecessor as a leader among equals in the new American Mafia. In Luciano’s Commission, Al Capone was the representative for the city he finally dominated, though not for long. In 1931, Capone was charged with tax evasion, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.