The festivities, which take place over three or four days each year, centered around August 15th, feature fine Italian foods, street decorations, live music, art gallery shows, ethnic mementos, wine tastings, carnival games and fireworks. Originally anchored by the Catholic commemoration of the Virgin Mary’s assumption into heaven — and its attendant religious ceremony and parade — the now-predominately-secular street fair is a revival of Italian culture, heritage and history.
Little Italy has long been home to Cleveland’s largest concentration of people of Italian descent; at one time its Italian-American population topped 98%. The district also once harbored one of the strongest Mafia organizations in the U.S. From its streets rose Ettore Boiardi, later known as Chef Boyardee of canned pasta fame. Another early Italian immigrant to the area developed and patented a popular hand-crank machine for turning out varieties of pasta.
Also known locally as Murray Hill, Little Italy encompasses no more than a dozen city blocks clustered about Mayfield Road as it rises steeply, angling east from its intersection with Euclid Avenue to its crest above Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland Heights. A major employer in the district’s past was the Lakeview Marble Works, which employed immigrant stonecutters to supply the nearby cemetery with monuments.
The heart of Little Italy is the intersection of Murray Hill and Mayfield Road, lined with brick and wood-framed structures no more than a few stories tall, and all studded with Italian family restaurants, dolcerias, cafes, galleries and stores of incidentals. Many of the buildings sport apartments or residences above, while the surrounding streets (some still brick-paved) contain small lots with two- and three-story frame houses, amid a scattering of trees, small lawns and well-tended gardens.
Little Italy is well traveled, as Mayfield Road provides a ready link from thriving University Circle to its west and the residential areas of Cleveland Heights to the east and beyond. The neighborhood’s religious needs are met by the Roman Catholic Holy Rosary Church; nearby stands a commemorative statue of Cristoforo Colombo, and the underpass beneath the local rail lines bears a long-standing mural dedicated to the area’s Italian heritage.