For Italian-Americans living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, weekends were special. On Saturdays, they put on their best clothing and went shopping on 18th Avenue for everything from food to new shoes. They enjoyed gelato while strolling the avenue. They stopped for chats on the sidewalks, or while sitting on lawn chairs set up in front of houses.

On Sundays, women attended Italian mass at the Church of St. Rosalia or Basilica of Regina Pacis, while men watched the Italian soccer game on television. After mass, the wives went home to prepare large Italian meals. The men headed to coffee shops such as Caffe Italia on 69th Street to discuss soccer, but knew they had to be home by 1 p.m. for lunch.

Caffe Italia still lives in Bensonhurst today.

“It was like being actually in Italy,” said Ludo Masucci, who immigrated from Naples, Italy in 1974 at the age of 11 and has lived in Bensonhurst for 47 years. “People did the exact same things that they did in the old country.”

John Travolta made Bensonhurst famous when he strutted down its streets with two pizza slices from Lenny’s Pizza in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever.” Marked as an Italian-American stronghold, the neighborhood was referred to as the “Little Italy” of Brooklyn. However, it has changed a lot since then. Lenny’s Pizza still stands, but many other Italian cultural hallmarks have faded as ethnic demographics changed. Asian residents make up the majority of the population, consisting of 46,000 people, while the Hispanic population is 19,999, in comparison to 30-39,000 white people, according to 2020 census data.

Much of the old Italian character has been replaced by chain stores and restaurants. People still walk on 18th Avenue to shop, but it is not the community event it used to be.

The Walker Theater, which opened in 1926 on 64th Street, played Italian movies on Sundays. After it closed in 1988, it became a Target.

Target, located at 6401 18th Avenue, opened in 1988.

Similarly, Caffe Mille Luci on 71st Street eventually closed and became a Dunkin’ Donuts store. There used to be an Italian restaurant called Il Grottino in the basement.

“Caffe Mille Luci” is written on the pavement in front of Dunkin’ Donuts on 7121 18th Avenue.

There were several catering halls that housed Italian weddings, communions and other parties, such as La Perville on 65th Street between 18th and 19th avenues.

Oriental Manor on 86th Street, which closed in 2007 after serving the community for 53 years, is now a Marshall’s. It was featured in the 1990 movie “Goodfellas” during a wedding scene.

Another example is the now-closed Cotillion Terrace on 73rd Street. It was previously the Senate Theatre, which opened in 1925 and closed in 1957.

The sign for the Cotillion Terrace, located at 7311 18th Avenue, fades away.

Record stores sold not only Italian music but also movies, magazines, houseware and novelty items imported from Italy. Examples of record stores that have closed include Il Musichiere on 69th Street and Arcobaleno on 73rd Street.

Another example is Little Records on 62nd Street, which closed in the early 2010s, according to Yelp. It is now Modern Eyes Optical, an optometrist and eyewear place.

However, S.A.S. Italian Records on 71st Street has remained. It is owned by Ciro and Rita Conte in 1967 after immigrating to Bensonhurst from Ponza, Italy. Their daughter Silvana is now a co-owner.

S.A.S. Italian Records, located on 7113 18th Avenue, still serves the Bensonhurst community.

There were also many social clubs that recreated the Italian cafe atmosphere. In the past, people gathered to talk, watch television and play Italian card games such as scopa and briscola.

Sciacca Social Club, named after a town in Sicily, Italy, and Societa Figli de Ragusa are both still there on 73rd Street.

The Brooklyn Italians Soccer Club, founded in 1949 by Italian immigrants, is also a social club that still exists today. As one of the oldest soccer clubs in the United States, it won the US Open Cup in 1979 and 1991.

In the present day, its youth sector, which grew in the 1990s, plays in local leagues, tournaments, and cups.

Masucci, its director of operations, began coaching for the club 22 years ago. Now, the club is surrounded by Jewish and Chinese businesses, but “back in the day, it was all Italian,” he said.

When he attended Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School — which had an Italian bilingual program — in 1978, he said he still saw fellow Italian immigrants who “did not speak a word of English.” 

When he graduated in 1982, he estimated that 90% of the last names in his yearbook were Italian last names. However, he said he saw fewer of those “new” immigrants. 

In addition to decreasing immigration, the decline of Italian presence in Bensonhurst during the 1980s can be explained by the group’s history in America. 

Italians, as well as Jews, moved into Bensonhurst after World War II. Their priority was fulfilling the American Dream and for many, that involved working two jobs and saving to purchase a house, according to Masucci. 

“The number one thing on these people’s minds when they left Italy, whether by boat, or by plane, and came here — they would not sleep a night because they had to buy a house,” he said. “Save, save, save, to own a home as soon as possible.”

The American Dream also involved education. Many of these immigrants came from southern Italy, which had a high rate of illiteracy. Some of them had only completed elementary or middle school. As a result, many were blue-collar. 

“The only thing they knew how to do was use their hands,” Masucci said. “And common sense.”

These immigrants wanted their children that were born in the United States to get an education and become professionals.  

“Their concern was not to make their children suffer the way they suffered in the old country,” he said. 

When these children grew up, many of them moved to the suburbs in Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut for “bigger houses, better schools, more grass, more bedrooms and more property,” Masucci said. Some took their parents with them. 

At the same time, the area was turning into a diverse, polyglot community as the 1980s brought a surge in Chinese, Mexican, Russian and Middle Eastern immigration. 

“There’s been a real metamorphosis in this area,” then-Community Board 11 Chairman William Guarinello told the New York Times in 2008. “What we have here today is a real melting pot.”

More than half of the population was foreign-born as of 2018, according to the community health profile

The Brooklyn Italians Soccer Club “embraces its historical roots while simultaneously representing the diverse cultural community in the greater Brooklyn area,” according to its website

For Masucci, this means welcoming everyone in its “multi-ethnic family” but preserving and taking pride in the Brooklyn Italians name and history.

“Whoever registers, comes to play for this club, you are part of history,” he said. “You’re going to become part of history because it’s a historical club in the soccer community. Everyone knows the Brooklyn Italians.”

For the Italian-Americans that remain in Bensonhurst and its surrounding areas, preserving the culture means keeping traditions alive. The annual Feast Of Santa Rosalia on 18th Avenue offers rides, music, games and food to the community every late August and early September. 

They can still grab a pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens on 86th Street, a cannoli from Villabate Alba Bakery on 70th Street and buy Italian imported foodstuffs from Pastosa on 74th Street. 

Villabate Alba Bakery sells Italian cookies, pastries and cakes.