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Italo Balbo, a complex and controversial figure, from Italy to Grant Park

Italo Balbo (right) pictured with Benito Mussolini in 1933. | Sun-Times files

With his chestnut-hued goatee, winning smile and world-famous aviation feats, Italo Balbo was seen as a thrilling, swashbuckling figure in his day.

He was also a fascist — violently anti-socialist.

A last-minute compromise ended plans to rename Balbo Drive for Ida B. Wells; she will be honored instead with the renaming of Congress Parkway. But the conversation about stripping Balbo’s name from a prominent if relatively short Chicago street may not be over.

Balbo was a complex figure, according to the man who wrote perhaps the definitive Balbo biography, the late Claudio G. Segre.

Balbo Drive street sign where Balbo intersects with State Street. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times
Balbo Drive street sign where Balbo intersects with State Street. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“American newspapers likened [Balbo and his ilk] to gangsters and suggested that Balbo would have found himself quite at home on the streets of Chicago,” Segre wrote in his 1987 book, “Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life.”

But Balbo had no interest in corruption or illegal businesses.

“He and his men were patriots struggling to save Italy,” from a feared socialist takeover of the country in the 1920s, Segre wrote. Balbo saw violence as the quickest way to achieve that goal.

Born in the northern Italian city of Ferrara, Balbo would go on to become a decorated World War I hero, a political rival to Benito Mussolini and a showman-like aviator who, in 1933, famously led 25 aircraft across the North Atlantic to Chicago and back.

Italo Balbo (right) pictured in 1933. | Sun-Times files
Italo Balbo (right) pictured in 1933. | Sun-Times files

Balbo favored uniforms dripping with gold braid and medals, and he was both “spoiled and self-indulgent,” Segre wrote.

But Balbo, unlike Mussolini, saw no good in Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s and repeatedly urged the Italian dictator to avoid what he saw as a doomed alliance with the Nazis, Segre wrote.

He once told a friend, pointing to an Italian street light, that after a failed fascist war in Europe, “You’ll see us all hanging from those lampposts.”

Balbo also loudly declared his opposition to the anti-Semitic sentiments of Mussolini and Hitler.

“I do not differentiate between Catholic Italians and Jewish Italians,” Segre quoted Balbo as saying in 1937.

Balbo, whom Mussolini had appointed governor-general of Italian Libya, was preparing for war against the British when his personal airplane was shot down in June 1940 in Libya in what historians generally agree was an accident — Italian forces on the ground mistook Balbo’s plane for a hostile British one. Everyone on board the plane was killed.

In the end, Balbo’s predictions about war in Europe proved true. But in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the fall of fascism, Balbo’s warnings were forgotten in the anti-fascist sentiment of the moment.

“In Chicago, a major thoroughfare through Grant Park still bore the name of Balbo Drive,” Segre wrote, “but Italy named no street after him — not even in Ferrara. Busts of the once-acclaimed aerial conqueror of oceans and continents and portraits of the African colonizer who ruled with imperial Roman grandeur disappeared from public display.”