The Perfect Blend of Award-Winning Dining, Unique Artisans, Religion, and Rich History
Pretty much every lifelong Clevelander has their own personal story or memories of the best-known of the five major Italian settlements established in Cleveland. Mine dates back to the early 1980s when I got my start in the wholesale beer business. The Little Italy neighborhood was a large part of the delivery territory I was responsible for, and I got to see on a day in, day out basis the pride that the people had in their culturally rich little part of the city that allowed them to recreate what was so important to them about their previous homes in Italy.
Everything from their religion, family, livelihood pursuits and, my goodness, the food was on display each and every day. I spent a little over a year being exposed to things so important to what was simply known as the “neighborhood." Honestly, nothing much has really changed within the neighborhood over the years and the one thing that truly remains firmly entrenched is the fierce protection of those that live there to ensure that it never does.
Also known as “Murray Hill," after the other main street besides Mayfield Road that pretty much defines the area, Little Italy stands the test of time as one of Cleveland’s most enduring neighborhoods. Much has changed in the areas around Little Italy. More modern housing, shops, restaurants and even an RTA expansion have arrived to accommodate changes to University Circle and Case Western Reserve University's needs, but at the top of the hill, one thing is of great comfort to residents of the area. Another Cleveland treasure, Lake View Cemetery, will forever stand watch over the residents and memories of Murray Hill. Sitting high atop the hill, Lake View still has the most spectacular view of downtown Cleveland on a clear sunny day.
The area was established in 1885 and by the end of 1890s settled primarily by Italian immigrants, many of whom were marble craftsmen. There were many marble works nearby so they had the best of both worlds in that they were able to ply their trade skills so close to home. In addition to these craftsmen, many residents were also uniquely talented in lacework, garment making and embroidery. The macaroni machine was even invented here in 1906. The area was so tight-knit, it was estimated that by 1911, 96% of the residents were Italian-born and another 2% were born of Italian parents.
There are many events held in the neighborhood each year, but the one that stands out among them all is the annual Little Italy Feast of the Assumption. It is a four-day street festival held in August each year centered around the Holy Rosary Church just about at the intersection of Mayfield and Murray Hill. The event had been celebrated for 121 straight years prior to last year’s cancellation due to COVID. The hope is that in August of 2021, people from all over Northeast Ohio will once again make the trip to enjoy the food, music, prayers and traditions of this iconic festival.
Today, the makeup of the residents is no longer primarily Italian, but the look and feel of the neighborhood remains pretty much the same, as those that do live there understand the enormous responsibility that comes with the preservation of this Cleveland gem. Visitors continue to flock to the area every year - they take in the wonderful museums a stone’s throw away, enjoy a concert by the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra, or simply just say to themselves, “Hey, it’s a beautiful evening. Let's head down to Murray Hill for dinner.”
The community made the step in 1993 toward some lasting remembrances to the storied past by creating Tony Brush Park, named in honor of one of their own: Anthony Brescia, a local champion boxer. It is the hope that in the summer of this year, another statue will be unveiled of former Cleveland Indians slugger Rocky Colavito, who thrilled loyal Tribe fans with his rocket arm from right field and his home run prowess at the plate from 1955-1959 and again in 1965-1967.
There is so much more we could share, but instead, we suggest you do your own homework and, maybe even more importantly, visit the area to create some lasting memories of your own.
Image source: Erik Drost