By Martie Thompson
The Italian-American Club of today was officially founded in 1951, but its roots as a social club celebrating arts, family, tradition, music and food — everything Italian — actually go back to the early 1920s. The original club, founded by a small group of immigrants, disbanded pretty quickly, but the American Italian Club of Jacksonville was founded in 1935 and consisted mostly of first generation Americans. During World War II, the club was again disbanded, but once the war was over, the present day club made its debut via formal charter. The club takes pride in being Jacksonville’s oldest ethnic organization.
In the early days, meetings were held at members’ homes, restaurants and meeting halls. The Italian-American Club’s first structure was a pavilion on the Southside that was eventually enclosed.
“My childhood revolved around club activities: picnics on the beach; socials in restaurants; parties at members’ homes,” said club member Lucy Cortese. “I recall potluck dinners at our first property, an open pavilion on Southside Boulevard, then a dirt road. Members brought their kids along and we enjoyed outdoor games while the dads played bocce and the ladies shared favorite recipes sprinkled with stories of the old country.”
Members continued to dream of a true clubhouse. But according to Cortese, when her mother discovered an opportunity to purchase property on Westberry Road, club members were unsure. “Who would want to drive all the way to Mandarin?” they asked. “There’s nothing but orange groves out there.” Eventually they were convinced and charter members pledged money to buy the land at 2838 Westberry Road and build the club’s current facility in 1978.
The opening of the new building, with much pomp and ceremony, marked the realization of a dream, especially for the club’s original members.
Today, the club is bustling with activity, including social events such as dinners, dances, and day trips. The club’s famous Festa Italiana, a celebration of all things Italian and open to the community, is held each spring and fall. Tables are set up inside the club and decorated in the Italian colors of red, white and green. Along with music and an array of homemade baked goods, the atmosphere is decidedly festive. Spaghetti dinners “to go,” featuring homemade meatballs like mama used to make, are held most months as fundraisers for the club, which is all volunteer-run.
Carlo and Ann Clemente have been club members for 15 years. They have served the club in many different capacities and are presently both on the board of directors; Carlo serves as board chairman.
“We came to this area from out of state,” Carlo Clemente said. “At the club, it feels like family. You can meet people and automatically have friends. And you don’t have to be Italian. Anyone who appreciates Italian culture and food is welcome to join.”
Ann Clemente said that club is also available for rentals, fees from which go to help with the upkeep of the aging club building.
“We are so thankful for the club,” Ann Clemente said. “Everybody gets along and we just enjoy coming together with people who share an appreciation of all things Italian.”
Photo courtesy Elizabeth Dore
Mario Cortese, Italian American Club vice president and volunteer chef, preparing for the Festa Italiana.