Bringing A Taste Of Their Homeland: Immigrants Diversify Omaha Food Scene
May 29, 2020 11:38AM
By Tim Trudell
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
They came for jobs with the railroad and the packing houses. Their legacies are the eateries that help define Omaha’s culinary scene.
Omaha’s immigration story has been told through food—from Irish to Mexican fare. It’s easy to find restaurants here featuring comestibles from around the world. Omaha’s been home to Italian steakhouses in South Omaha, as well as eateries featuring Central American, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Asian cuisine. The city’s newest immigrants have brought recipes to highlight staples from Africa. It seems as though people can find something to eat from every continent but Antarctica, unless the penguins at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium would like to share some recipes.
Omaha has been home to immigrants coming from areas such as Eastern Europe, Asia, western Europe, Central America, and east Africa. Omaha has become a true melting pot over the past 160 years.
While there were small pockets of immigrants scattered around the city prior to 1863, immigration took off after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law. Attracting a large population of Irish immigrants to help build the transcontinental railroad that had its eastern terminus in Omaha, immigrants and first-generation sons and daughters of immigrants arrived in Omaha.
“They were usually ‘second-step’ Irish, meaning they were born in Ireland, but raised in Boston, New York, or Pennsylvania,” said Quin Slovek, an American history professor at Metropolitan Community College. “It was only about 20 years after the potato famine, so you had people coming to America because of starvation.”
Joining the Irish in Omaha around that time were German immigrants. They found their way to the United States, and later, Omaha, because of political rebellion and persecution, Slovek said. Germany’s influence in Omaha was heavy, he said, as new residents built churches and opened several stores. The city had several German-language newspapers, such as the Omaha Tribune and Volkszeitung Tribune, according to the Nebraska Historical Society. Omaha was home to several German-style breweries, such as Storz, Metz, and Krug. Each produced authentic-tasting German beer through prohibition, when they were forced to close or adapt their product.
Omaha’s immigration seemed to run in 20-year intervals, Slovek said. Following the Irish and Germans, Eastern Europeans started finding their way to Omaha in the early 1880s. South Omaha was founded in 1886 as a predominately Irish area, but with the growing number of packing houses, the work attracted Polish and Czechoslovakian immigrants, along with people from Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Greece, and even Syria, he said. Little education was required and language wasn’t a barrier to the packing house jobs, Slovek iterated.
"You had tens of thousands of industrial jobs that were relatively high paying and required little to no education,” he said. “There would be shifts at certain plants that spoke the same language, such as Czech or Polish.”
Neighborhoods grew up around the packing houses and stockyards, such as Brown Park and Scheelytown, Slovek said. In north Omaha, the Irish had a large population in an area known as Gophertown, because of the dugout homes many lived in.
While Lithuanians established a small neighborhood in South Omaha, the Lithuanian Bakery has grown to become a popular eatery among Omahans and visitors. Founded by immigrants Vytautas and Stefanjia Mackevicius, the bakery and deli has served the community since 1962. The duo were displaced following World War II and lived in Red Cross camps in Germany after the war ended. They stayed in barracks once used to house Nazi soldiers, said their eldest son, Algird “Al” Mackevicius. The couple met and married while living in the Red Cross camp. Vytautas served from 1946 until 1949 in the British army, posted along the North Sea.
The couple applied to emigrate to the United States and were approved as refugees in 1952. St. Anthony’s parish in South Omaha sponsored about 300 Lithuanian families over a three-year period, Al said. As a child, Al, who was born in West Germany, recalls sharing a home with another family after they arrived in Omaha.
Vytautas was hired at the Armour packing house in South Omaha. He worked there for about 16 years. Vytautas learned to speak English to help the family succeed in the United States, Al said. His parents were both multi-lingual, with his father speaking Lithuanian, Polish, and German, as well.
“My mom could also speak Polish,” Al said. “She learned English by watching soap operas.”
While the neighborhood had a few small Lithuanian markets, there appeared to be a niche for a bakery, so, after having sold goods Stefanjia had baked at home, the family opened the bakery in 1962. Vytautas kept his job with Armour, working his night shift following a full day at the bakery. The family business also featured a small deli. In 1968, when Armour announced it was moving its operation to Sioux City, his father decided to stay in Omaha and dedicate his time to the bakery, Al said. Since the bakery has been open for more than 55 years, it appears to have been a good move, he said. Today, Al and two brothers—Alfonsas and Vytas—run the business.
In the early 1900s, Omaha became home to Italian immigrants, Slovek said. Between 1900 and 1910, about 800 Italian immigrants called the city home, creating the area known as Little Italy, he said.
“They’re a very cohesive community,” Slovek said. “You have a lot of restaurant owners in that community. They’re also very centrally located downtown. Most of their business community was north of Vinton Street. They were over-represented in the grocery business, the import business.”
Joe Patane and his future bride, Nellie Privitera, then in their late teens, emigrated to the United States in 1915. They knew each other from their native area of Sicily, but married after arriving in the United States. During the Italians’ move to the U.S., they had to meet three requirements —know someone here, be healthy, and have $25—granddaughter Nicole Jesse said.
“Following World War I, Italy was a poor country,” she said. “Italians suffered a great deal. For a lot of them, it was the only chance for a decent way of life.”
Patane, a carpenter by trade, landed a job working with the railroad. He worked there for a few years, before eventually opening his own carpentry business in the basement of the house that would become the site of the original La Casa Pizzaria.
During a trip to New York City, Patane became impressed with the pizza being served there. When the Patanes decided to open the pizzeria, it was a new food to Omaha, Jesse said. Known as a steak-and-potato town, Omaha’s dining scene was dominated by steakhouses when La Casa Pizzaria opened its doors in 1953. The rectangular-style pizza scored points with diners, and the restaurant ran out of food its first night.
“We had steak and chicken, too,” Jesse said. “But pizza was the king.”
It continues to lead the way, though today the restaurant also serves classic Italian dishes, including spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmesan, and lasagna.
Italians were among the last immigrants openly welcomed to the United States before immigration came to a screeching halt in 1924, Slovek said. That year, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which severely restricted immigration. The law’s strength was challenged in the late 1920s when the need for migrant workers became apparent, he said.
Despite having a small presence in the city since the late 1800s, the need for migrant workers helped increase the Hispanic population, Slovek said.
“The big wave really started in the late ’70s and has been ongoing for 40 years,” Slovek said.
While the 24th Street corridor in South Omaha is known for its Latin-American restaurants, Jacobo’s Authentic Mexican Grocery Bakery and Tortilleria has served the area for nearly 50 years. Initially offering items that could not be found at other Omaha groceries, its deli is popular with Latinos and Anglos alike, said Carlos Jacobo, who manages the store near 24th and L streets.
Ramon Jacobo, Carlos’ father, immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his parents as a child. After traveling back and forth to Mexico as a youth, he settled in Chicago for several years, where he owned a small market before deciding to return to Omaha and open Jacobo’s. He believed they could provide the Hispanic community a service that was lacking in Omaha, Carlos said.
Today, with nearly half of the customers non-Latinos, Jacobo believes the store can help bridge ethnic gaps.
“We provide an opportunity for Anglos who may not have had a relationship with Hispanics,” he said. “They hear people speaking both languages and treating others with respect.”
While early immigrants came to Omaha for jobs, some new residents escaped persecution and unsavory political climates. Since about 2000, Omaha has welcomed refugees from several African nations, such as Togo and Sudan.
Chaima Moradi escaped political turmoil in her native Togo when she and her then-fiancé, Boubakar Souleman, migrated to the United States in 2002. Now married and parents to four children ranging in age from 16 to 6, Moradi owns Chaima African Cuisine restaurant, as well as a food truck.
The restaurant serves traditional dishes from five African nations—Togo, Bemin, Ghana, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast—featuring fried plantains, peanut butter stew, spinach stew, and rice. She sees her business as more than a place to dine; it helps people learn about different cultures.
“Food and music are a universal language,” Moradi said. “You easily connect, feel comfortable, and then you ask questions you may not be comfortable asking someone on the street.”
Boasting dishes from around the world that celebrate culinary diversity, Omaha has grown from its old reputation as a steak town.
This article was printed in the June 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.