New Generation Of Italians Call Wheeling Home

As they boarded the flight, originally from Rome now departing New York for Pittsburgh, she asked her father why the flight crew was not speaking Italian.

“You will hear no more Italian from now on,” he replied.

The next morning at breakfast at the Hampton Inn in Wheeling a guest greeted them in perfect Italian.  “Aha,” the daughter exclaimed. “You were wrong!”

Indeed, after arriving in Wheeling to begin what was to be a two-year adventure, the Ghigo family continues to discover many Italian connections.

Most of us are very familiar with the rich ethnic fabric of the Ohio Valley.  Many Wheelingites can trace their ancestors to Italy as the immigrants of the early 20th century were recruited to work in West Virginia’s rapidly expanding coal and steel industries.  Wheeling was one of a few major industrial centers in West Virginia that manufactured iron, glass, pottery, and nails.  The Italians, being an occupationally diverse group, worked in these industries in addition to being artisans in carpentry, blacksmith, shoemakers, and stonemasons.  The number of Italians in the Ohio Valley swelled to 17,000 in 1910, and their descendants have since spread throughout the region. Now Wheeling is seeing a new wave of Italian immigration, a living wave of new citizens again shaping our community.  This new work force, though smaller in number than before, is not the unskilled labor of our great-grandparents’ day but a highly skilled group.  And the families these international companies bring are choosing to live in Wheeling.  According to the West Virginia Development Office there are 10 Italian-owned companies in the state with three located within 30 miles of Wheeling.

The Ghigo family is one of several Italian families new to Wheeling because of employment with Tecnocap.  This Italian-owned company is the third largest manufacturer of metal closures for food, pharmaceuticals, and beauty products in the world.  Established in 2006, the Glen Dale factory employs 150 and makes the largest variety of caps of any factory in the world.  Taking over the vacant Penn-Wheeling Closures plant that operated for 120 years, they will invest $3 million in the plant in the next 18 months.  Additional Italian-owned companies in our area include IMIFABI, a talc mining operation whose North American headquarters are in Benwood and Pietro Fiorentini, a natural gas systems design and construction company with offices in downtown Wheeling, and a $9 million plant in Weirton.

Paolo Ghigo, president of the Glen Dale Tecnocap operation, relocated his family of  five to Wheeling from Rome two years ago.  Language and cultural difficulties made the transition to American life similar to the immigration experience of the past.  However, making a major effort to assimilate and taking advantage of helpful opportunities like ELS teachers at school and support from programs at Wheeling Jesuit University have eased the transition for the Ghigos.  In addition, the family oriented atmosphere of Wheeling was a welcome change from the fast-paced city life of Rome.

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“Even though you need the car as much in Rome as in Wheeling, the commute is not as long.  We have more family time and time for more activities,” said Ghigo.

The Ghigos are continually approached by people of Italian descent who immediately consider them “paesanos.”  Locals are eager to tell them what part of Italy their family is from and to share their own story. The Ghigos are charmed by residents’ curiosity and how they speak of Italy almost dreamlike, perhaps echoing their ancestors’ longing for home.

“We have been amazed to find so many people who can speak Italian, some fluently.  This is something we never expected.”

These recent immigrants are embracing their new home.  By celebrating Thanksgiving, enjoying the many sporting events in the area, and involving themselves and their children in activities and clubs, they have immersed themselves in their community.  Luckily for Wheeling, they are giving back and sharing their own cultural gifts.  For example, “La Torta” is a small business endeavor created at the Ohio Valley Farmers Market.  Francesca Meluzzi, wife of Paolo, and Elisa Chiarioni, who is Chief Financial Officer at Tecnocap, bake traditional Italian crostata (pies), cakes, and cookies. They sell these at the farmers market and also fill special orders.  Patrons remark that they haven’t had authentic Italian pastries since their childhood days when their grandparents baked them.

Francesca says, “The ameretti with chocolate is a favorite.”

Francesca Meluzzi & Elisa Chiarioni at the “La Torta” stand at the OV Farmers Market.
Francesca Meluzzi & Elisa Chiarioni at the “La Torta” stand at the OV Farmers Market.

In addition, “Two Roman Ladies” is a lively cooking demonstration hosted by Good Mansion Wines.  Presented by Francesca Meluzzi and Elena D’Angelo, these monthly dinners showcase Roman recipes.  Lessons in ingredients, technique, and Roman tradition are incorporated in the evening followed by a family style dinner.  The events have become so popular they are sold out almost before they are announced.  In addition, the Ghigos have contributed to language classes at the Sons of Italy in Bellaire and are very involved with their children’s schools, activities and their church.
The world is indeed getting smaller.  As Tecnocap grows and new international companies like these move to the area, new immigrants will choose to make Wheeling their home. And again, their presence will contribute to the changing character of our town.