Geographic Origins

The Republic of Italy, situated in southern Europe, is bordered by Slovenia, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Mediterranean Sea. Italy is divided into 20 regions, each having its own customs and traditions.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Antonio Giannoni from Rimini was the first Italian to settle in South Australia.  He was 25 when he arrived at Port Adelaide on 19 September, 1839, on the ship Recovery. He worked in the Survey Department as a labourer, a job offered to him by Lieutenant Frome, who also travelled on the Recovery. In 1841 Giannoni left the Survey Department and moved to Encounter Bay where he worked in the whaling industry until 1847. In 1848 he returned to Adelaide, married in the following year, the first of three marriages in the span of five-and-a-half years. Six months after the death of his first wife he married again. His second wife died in childbirth nine months after their marriage. He married Mary Clapton originally from Wiltshire, England, two months later. The couple had five children.

In 1852 Giannoni was lured to the goldfields of Victoria, where he met with limited success. In 1861 he became a cab driver in the suburb of Kensington and Norwood. Giannoni died on 6 September, 1883, after 44 years in his adopted homeland. His son Peter was elected Mayor of Kensington and Norwood in 1920.

The second documented Italian arrival in South Australia was in 1846. Two Italian priests of the Passionist order, Maurizio Lencioni and Luigi Pesciaroli, arrived in Adelaide on 1 September following the failure of the Aboriginal mission on Stradbroke Island, Queensland. They were devoid of funds and could not continue on to their destination in Western Australia. Father Luigi went to Mount Barker and Father Maurizio worked at the Bishop’s residence on West Terrace until he died in 1864.

Other early Italian settlers included Nicola Caporelli, a Roman, who arrived in 1848 from the Salvado mission in Western Australia; Salvatore Cilento, from Naples, who landed in 1855 and started what was to be the well-known South Australian and Queensland Cilento family; and Neapolitan composer Cesare Cutolo (1858), who was awarded second prize in the Song of Australia competition.

During the next decades Italians who chose to settle in South Australia included other musicians (Paolo Faustino Ziliani, Raffaele Squarise), Vincenzo De Giorgio, civil engineer Paolo Villanis, viticultural expert Luigi Ziliotto, and various sailors, fishermen, shopkeepers, stonemasons, labourers and icecream makers. At the time of the 1881 census 141 Italians were living in South Australia, of whom 133 were men and eight were women.

Italian migration to South Australia since the late nineteenth century has been marked by two characteristics: its regional nature and chain migration. Migrants who arrived first would forge the first link in the migration chain, and relatives and friends from the same community would follow and settle together in a specific area.

Chain migration first began in the 1880s with the arrival of fishermen from Molfetta, a town situated on the Adriatic coast in the region of Puglia. Molfetta’s traditions of boat building, seafaring and fishing are centuries old. In the late nineteenth century the familiar sea routes of the Mediterranean were extended, and Molfettese sailors carried home from South Australia reports of bountiful fishing in gulf waters reminiscent of the Adriatic Sea. South Australia offered hope for a better future to Molfettese fishermen struggling to make a living. Thus began the ebb and flow of Italian fishermen and their families between Molfetta, Port Pirie and Port Adelaide.

The first known Molfettese man to fish in Port Pirie was Vito Caputo, who had deserted a cargo sailing ship in Sydney in 1883. After two years in Adelaide he settled in Port Pirie. By 1902 his brother Domenico had arrived and Vito returned to Molfetta. He encouraged another brother and other community members to emigrate. Vito had forged the first link in the migration chain and soon there was a pattern of single men coming to South Australia to fish. Many sent the money that they earned back home to enable other family members to emigrate. In the first decade of the century a number of Italian wives and children arrived in Port Pirie to join the original settlers. A survey in 1991 established that there were 1,055 people of Italian descent living in Port Pirie, 7.06 per cent of the total population. Most Italian families in Port Pirie originated from Molfetta. A small group came from the Veneto region following the arrival, in the 1880s, of Angelo Bassani from Rocca d’Arsié.

In the late 1890s Molfettese also settled in Port Adelaide. Although their numbers were smaller and the fishing grounds less extensive, they were, and still are a close-knit community and manifested the same chain migration patterns as did their counterparts in Port Pirie.

By the 1920s the Molfettese had turned the small South Australian fishing trade into an extensive industry, with markets for king whiting in Adelaide, Melbourne and Broken Hill. Few Italians from the Veneto chose to take up fishing, preferring instead to work in the Broken Hill Associated Smelters that were opened in Port Pirie in 1888.

Between 1920 and 1930 there was a substantial flow of Italians to Australia because Australia offered stability and economic security and because by 1924 Italians could no longer migrate to the United States. In this period Italians emigrated to South Australia from the regions of the Veneto, Campania and Calabria, once again through chain migration. Many worked as unskilled labourers, fish buyers or vendors, or became involved in the fruit industry as pickers, or established market gardens in the Upper and Lower Torrens Valley. A group of Italian families settled in the Lockleys and Campbelltown areas. While there were 184 Italians in South Australia in the 1911 census, by 1921 this figure had risen to 344 and by 1933 the number had quadrupled to 1,489, with an approximate male to female ratio of 3 to 1.

Italy, under the fascist dictatorship of Mussolini, entered the Second World War in support of Hitler. Italian settlers in Australia who were not naturalised were officially classified as ‘enemy aliens’. All Italians came under suspicion.

On 11 June, 1940, the day after Mussolini’s declaration of war, security forces swooped without warning on Italian families. They began arresting hundreds of men, who were then interned in camps across Australia. In South Australia 173 Italians were interned at Loveday near Barmera. Those detained included well-known and successful businessmen such as Francesco Borgia, Giuseppe Bailetti and Alberto Del Fabbro.

Australia also interned 18,432 Italian POWs between 1941 and 1947, the majority of whom were captured by Australian troops in North Africa and the Middle East.

Security forces made no distinction between Australia’s Italians who were members of the Fascist party and those who actively opposed fascism. As a consequence Italian communists, anarchists and some naturalised Australians were interned with fascists and POWs. The lack of distinction between fascist and anti-fascist on the part of Australian authorities led to tension between the internees and resulted in the murder of Francesco Fantin, an Italian anarchist, on 16 November, 1942, at camp No. 14A at Loveday.

Recruitment into the armed forces created huge labour shortages, especially on the land. In 1943 POW Control Centres were set up throughout Australia to distribute POWs as labourers. There were six centres in South Australia, at Morgan, Mount Barker-Strathalbyn, Willunga, Murray Bridge, Clare and Mount Gambier. Italian POWs were put to work on unguarded farms and in other essential industries and services. They helped supply fresh fruit and vegetables to the home front and repaired the Transcontinental Railway. At the end of the war all Italian prisoners were repatriated. Some chose to return as immigrants, often sponsored by the Australian families who had employed them.

After the Second World War the Italian economy lay in ruins. Millions were unemployed and the bulk of Italy’s rural population lived in extreme poverty. Emigration was again promoted by the Italian government as a solution to the problem.

From 1945 to 1972 approximately 374,000 Italians emigrated to Australia and about 30,000 Italians settled in South Australia. In 1947 there were just 2,428 Italians living here, but by 1961 the number had grown to 26,230.

Chain migration continued. The regional links that existed before the war were re-established. The majority of Italian migrants came from five regions: Calabria, Puglia, Campania, Veneto, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia. In South Australia they settled at Port Pirie, the Riverland, Port Adelaide, the northern Adelaide Plains, and in Adelaide’s western and north-eastern suburbs.

Before the early 1950s there were no assisted passages for Italian immigrants. Most Italians were sponsored by family and friends already settled in South Australia. The authorities required the sponsor to guarantee that an immigrant could find work and a place to live.

In 1951 Australia signed a bilateral agreement with the Italian government, which allowed Italians to apply for assisted passages. The majority of Italians, however, preferred to be independent and continued to rely on the strong tradition of village and family sponsorship. Often the single or married male would come out first and settle into a boarding house run by Italian families in the centre of Adelaide. Well-known boarding houses were run by the Stocco, Cescato, Floreani and Caon families. The money that the newly-arrived Italian earned was then used to assist the passage of other family members. Since this time migration from Italy to South Australia has slowed.

Community Activities

Italians are mainly affiliated with Christianity of which 96.2% are predominantly Roman Catholic.

The religious life of each village or region in Italy centres on devotion to a patron saint or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Villagers aspire to live by the example of their particular patron saint. Each year the village celebrates the feast day of the saint or Mary with special Masses followed by a procession, where a life-size statue of the religious figure is carried through the streets. The festival is a lively social occasion and a holiday for the whole community.

When Italians began arriving in Australia in their thousands after the Second World War, they were confronted with the very different traditions of Irish Catholics. There were few Italian-speaking priests in South Australia to minister to their needs. Archbishop Beovich called for an Italian chaplain to be permanently based in Adelaide.

In 1949 Father Nicola Simonazzi, a Capuchin Friar, and two brothers arrived from Italy. They went to Campbelltown and established a small parish. By 1953 Father Nicola and his Italian parishioners had built a church in Newton dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. Other religious orders mainly dedicated to Italian pastoral care in South Australia are the Scalabrinian Fathers at Seaton, who arrived in 1961, and the Canossian Sisters at Salisbury.

Italians, especially those from central and southern Italy, have close spiritual and cultural links with the patron saint of the village of their birthplace. Today in South Australia there are many Italian associations that celebrate a religious festival in honour of their local saint at different times during the year. These festivals not only have a religious function but are a social gathering that brings the community together helping to maintain the customs and traditions of the village and the region while handing them on to younger generations.

Approximately 13 saints’ feast days are celebrated annually at the Newton parish, the major of which is the feast of Madonna di Montevergine, the patron of the Campania region. It takes place on the last Sunday in September. The San Pellegrino Martire feast has been attracting thousands of devotees to the Norwood parish since 1977. San Pellegrino’s sanctuary in Italy is in Altavilla Irpina in the province of Avellino, Campania. In Altavilla the feast day is celebrated on 25 August, but in Adelaide the date has been changed to the third Sunday in January. The Port Pirie and Port Adelaide Molfettese communities hold major festivities in September for the patron of Molfetta, La Madonna dei Martiri, which also include the Blessing of the Fishing Fleet.

The celebration of these festivals follows a set pattern. The feast day is preceded by a triduum or novena, three or nine days of prayer and Masses. On the feast day the statue is carried in a procession, accompanied by devotees saying the rosary and singing hymns, to the altar where a High Mass is celebrated. Devotees make donations of money as a sign of their faith and devotion, or as an offering of thanksgiving. The liturgical ceremonies are followed by a fair with food stalls, sideshows, entertainment, sports competitions and fireworks.

The Italian language was first taught in South Australia by Nicola Caporelli in 1848. In 1932 Saturday Italian Schools were set up in Adelaide and Port Pirie by the local fascist branches. In 1937 Italian was offered to Adelaide University students as part of the university’s WEA programme.  In 1953 Giorgio Masero began offering after-hours classes at the university and in 1960 he established the Dante Alighieri Society of South Australia, which aimed to promote Italian language and culture. His initial efforts encouraged Italian to be taught in primary and secondary schools. In 1971 a Chair of Italian was established at the Flinders University of South Australia with the financial assistance of the Italian community. The Italian Didactic Centre and the Ethnic Schools Association also offered Italian language classes. Italian was taught initially to the children of Italian migrants so that they could retain their mother-tongue, communicate with their parents and thereby ensure family solidarity. Courses in Italian language and culture are now also taken by non-Italians.

Like most post-war migrants, when Italians came to Australia after the second world war their first priority was to better their financial positions and establish a future for their children. There was little time to concentrate on music and art. Subsequently three major Italian singing groups were created in Adelaide: the Italian Choral and Arts Society, the Italian Folk Ensemble and the Monteverdi Singers.

Doppio Teatro, South Australia’s first Italo-Australian professional theatre company was established in 1983. The work of this bilingual theatre company, later called Doppio Parallelo originally focused on aspects of tradition and change in the Italian and Australian cultures but later embraced cutting-edge technology to create innovative new works.

The Italian presence in South Australia can be measured by the impact it has had on the state’s social, economic, cultural and commercial life. Italian migrants brought their centuries-old traditions and skills with them and contributed to the development of South Australia.

Italian South Australians pioneered the state’s building industry, especially in plastering, cement moulding, brick laying and terrazzo. Alberto Del Fabbro, Victor Del Fabbro and the Floreani brothers established Adelaide’s first successful terrazzo companies. The former began his business in 1925 in Kent Town and both before and after the war he sponsored specialist workers from Friuli, guaranteeing them work and a home to live in. The aim of the Marble and Cement Work Company, established by Anacleto Dalle Nogare, Martino Beltrame, Angelo Della Flora and Evelino Rodighiero in 1946, was to introduce marble into South   Australia’s building industry. Strongmix Concrete was initiated by Carlo Ferraro in 1944 and provided a major boost to South Australia’s concrete industry.

Italy has a long tradition of smallholdings where families grow vegetables and fruit for themselves and the local market. Italians established market gardens in Adelaide’s western suburbs, the northern Adelaide Plains, and the north-eastern suburbs, and orchards in the Adelaide Hills, cultivating produce that was part of their everyday diet in Italy. They found South Australia’s Mediterranean climate sympathetic to their traditional crops. They sold fresh tomatoes, eggplants, capsicums, zucchinis and herbs at Adelaide markets. Most of these suburban market gardens no longer exist with the land carved up for housing.

Besides fruit and vegetables, Italian-South Australians introduced the community to a much wider variety of produce. Italians such as Steve and the Grilli family were well-known producers of wine and olive oil. Their descendants have continued the tradition.

Francesco Borgia built South Australia’s first pasta factory in 1938. After the Second World War he began to produce and export pasta on a large scale. His associate Luigi Crotti established the San Remo pasta factory immediately after the war. Initially these factories supplied various types of pasta, spaghetti, tagliatelle, macaroni and ravioli to the growing migrant community, but pasta is now very much a part of the Australian diet.

Adelaide has many restaurants that are Italian based including a host of pizzerias and coffee bars. Many of these places are modelled on the trattoria, the informal outdoor eating places of Italy.

Italy has been a major textile centre since medieval times. For centuries Italy’s textile industry has produced fine craftspeople, and Italian immigrants have brought textile skills and established factories. Spinelli Knitting Pty Ltd, which was established in 1960 by Elena and Sante Spinelli, is one example.

Many Italians have sought self-employment as a way of achieving financial independence. Italian South Australians own pizza bars, delicatessens, fruit and vegetable shops, hairdressing salons and other small businesses. A small business allows the family unit to work together. The family is the central social and economic unit, traditional in Italian cultural life.

Organisations and Media

There are many Italian associations, organisations and clubs in South Australia. They range from welfare organisations and religious associations to recreational, sporting and regional clubs. For many Italians these associations are meeting places where they can speak their own language dialect and maintain their cultural identity by keeping the links with familiar institutions. Of the regional clubs, the largest ones include the Fogolar Furlan and the Campania Sports and Social Club. Due to dwindling membership numbers the Veneto Club, originally one of the largest Italian clubs, was in 2013 forced to sell its premises at Toogood Avenue, Beverley. The Veneto Club now operates from a smaller venue at the Eagles Football Club premises in Oval Avenue, Woodville. Sporting bodies include the S.A. Bocce Federation Inc. and the Juventus Soccer Club, which was established in 1940, and is now known as the Adelaide City Zebras. Many regional clubs have their own sports teams.

The Coordinating Italian Committee annually organises the weekend-long Carnevale festival. The aim of the festival is to share Italian cultural traditions with South Australians.  Carnevale is a century’s old Christian tradition celebrated worldwide with masked balls, parades, theatre, songs, entertainment, folk dancers and other activities. The 40th anniversary of Carnevale in Adelaide was celebrated in 2016.


The 1981 census recorded 31,323 Italian-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 29,607. 63,129 people said that they were of Italian descent, making Italians the largest non-English speaking community in South Australia.

According to the 1991 census there were 28,962 Italian-born South Australians. 56,041 people said that their mothers were born in Italy and 63,808 that their fathers were. Payneham and Campbelltown have the highest proportion of Italian-born (12%) of any Local Government area in Australia.

According to the 1996 census there were 27,210 Italian-born South Australians, and a large second generation numbering 37,715.

The 2001 census recorded 24,964 Italian-born South Australians, while 83,454 people said that they were of Italian descent.

The 2006 census recorded 22,485 Italian-born South Australians, while 87,011 people said that they were of Italian descent.

The 2011 census recorded 20,708 Italian-born South Australians, while 91,887 people said that they were of Italian descent.

The 2016 census recorded 18,537 Italian-born South Australians, while 96,0005  people said that they were of Italian descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

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