More Italians have migrated to the United States than any other European nationality. Although relative latecomers, with the largest wave of immigration in the early 20th century, Italians more than made up for their lateness in sheer numbers. In the first decade of the 20th century alone, almost one-quarter of the 8,795,386 European immigrants came from Italy.
After 1880, during the height of Italian immigration to the United States, the majority of Italians came from the Southern region of Italy, or mezzogiorno. Factors that pushed these hardworking peasants to leave their homes included poor crop yields from primitive production methods, oppressive taxes, generalized poverty and overpopulation. In addition, two volcano eruptions and a major earthquake rocked southern Italy in the early 20th century.
The United States provided employment opportunities to Italian immigrants. As a politically-stable democratic nation with no initial restrictions on immigration, the U.S. seemed an attractive option for poverty-stricken Italian farmers. The growing industrial centers provided employment for these largely uneducated immigrants seeking to improve their circumstances.
Very early Italian immigrants came from Italy's northern provinces. These immigrants became prominent wine producers and fruit merchants in New York and California. Later immigrants, still prior to 1900, were mainly young men from southern Italy who intended to one day return. Pushed from their native country by poverty and overcrowding, they were pulled to America by the work opportunities found in large cities such as New York.
Although many Italian "birds of passage" came to the U.S. intending to return home at a later date, the majority remained. These immigrants and their families generally settled in neighborhoods dubbed "Little Italy" within large urban centers. Finding the Catholic church in America dominated by the Irish, they tightened their family and regional ties, creating their own social and charitable organizations.