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Dominic DiFrisco, ‘a giant in Chicago’s Italian community,’ 85

Dominic DiFrisco | Provided photo

Dominic DiFrisco landed in Chicago in 1962, on a “temporary” assignment to help commemorate Italian Air Force Marshal Italo Balbo’s famous flight here from Rome.

More than a half-century later, DiFrisco found himself fighting to save the name of Balbo Drive from what he called “the poisoned inkwell of revisionist history.” In between, he championed the memory of Christopher Columbus. He criticized stereotypical depictions of Italian mobsters. And, he made Chicago his home.

The native of New York who emerged as “a leader and spokesman for the Italian-American community” in Chicago died Sunday of complications from lymphoma, his grandson told the Chicago Sun-Times. DiFrisco was 85.

Robert Allegrini, executive vice president of the National Italian American Foundation, called DiFrisco “a giant in Chicago’s Italian community, and I would go so far as to say that he was a giant among all ethnic communities in Chicago.”

That’s because DiFrisco’s work was not confined to the Italian-American community. DiFrisco “always came to the defense and aid of other groups that he felt were being discriminated against unfairly,” Allegrini said.

DiFrisco’s grandson, Pasquale Dominic Gianni, remembered his grandfather as “a larger than life person” who “touched and helped so many people.”

“That was the cornerstone of his existence, really, was helping people,” Gianni said.

DiFrisco also played a key role in preserving the name of Balbo Drive, including last year when aldermen suggested renaming the street for civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. The city would instead rename Congress Parkway in Wells’ honor.

The controversial Balbo became famous for leading 25 aircraft across the North Atlantic to Chicago during the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. He also helped bring fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to power in 1922.

Twenty-nine years after Balbo’s famous flight to Chicago, the Italian airline Alitalia decided to commemorate Balbo’s crossing with its own inaugural flight between Chicago and Rome. DiFrisco came here and sold the idea to then-Mayor Richard. J. Daley, who told him, “young man, the project that you’ve just described is now the property of the City of Chicago,” according to Gianni.

Dominic DiFrisco and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. | Provided photo
Dominic DiFrisco and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. | Provided photo

Twelve men who once flew with Balbo made the voyage again in 1962. They were feted in Chicago, where they were given honorary citizenship in the City Council chambers. Balbo had since died.

More recently, there have been efforts to scrub Chicago of Balbo’s name because of his ties to Mussolini. Just last year, aldermen proposed renaming Balbo Drive for Wells. DiFrisco, who by then had become president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian-Americans, pushed back. He said he would not allow Balbo’s “integral part of Chicago history” to be unfairly smeared.

“We’ve already proven that he was in no way connected with anti-Semitism,” DiFrisco said.

“When Mussolini passed anti-Semitic laws in Italy, Balbo objected by taking all of his Jewish friends to dinner at a public restaurant. He also verbally and vocally opposed anti-Semitic laws. As a result, he was sent to Libya. Most people say he was shot down by Mussolini’s forces and killed in order to silence him.”

Gianni said it was a cause his grandfather believed in so much he promised “if it came to it he would chain himself to the street sign.”

DiFrisco also became a staunch defender of Christopher Columbus and reached common ground with Native Americans in 1992, 500 years after Columbus arrived in America. DiFrisco wound up traveling with Native American leaders to Italy — via Alitalia Airlines — and some of them even had an audience with the pope.

Gianni said they “celebrated and drank wine and laughed.” He said, “that was just his way — just putting people together and solving problems.”

Allegrini said DiFrisco “had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the contributions that Italy has made to the world.” He said DiFrisco “resented the portrayals of the people who had given so much reduced to appearing as mobsters, constantly, in television and movie depictions.”

In addition to Gianni, DiFrisco is survived by his wife Carol Loverde DiFrisco, daughter Nina Mariano and her husband, Robert, and sisters Carmela Soricelli and Louisa Termini. Gianni also described him as a “godfather and uncle to many … and friend of countless.”

A wake is planned from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday at The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 West Lexington. DiFrisco’s funeral is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday, also at The Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii.