The Italian Crime Families in the United States were a part of what we refer to as the American Mafia. Other terms used to describe these members of the Italian-American criminal society are “the Mob” or Cosa Nostra (Italian for “our thing”). The organization was started as a fraction of the Sicilian mafia. However, with time it began to encompass other gangsters of Italian-American origins and certain other Italian criminal organizations that were not necessarily from Sicily.
The Mafia in the U.S. originated in Italian immigrant areas in East Harlem, Brooklyn or the Lower East Side in New York during the late 19th and early 20th century. Since large waves of Italian Immigration were happening at the time, the Mafia spread to some cities outside New York as well, like Chicago and New Orleans. American Mafia is organized into families. A family is the most important unit of the Mafia, and it is the name used for various organizations that make up the Mafia. The members of a family are not necessarily related by blood.
The Five Families
Throughout the history of the Italian-American Mafia, the largest families were the ones organized by Salvatore Maranzano in 1931 in New York. He organized the families after he was victorious in a mob war for the streets of New York called the Castellammarese War. He reorganized the entirety of the gangs that were active in New York City and created the five families, each with their territory and a power structure. Those were the Maranzano, Profaci, Mangano, Luciano, and Gagliano, families. However, in time they changed names, and they are most well known as the Bonnano, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese families.
These are considered to be the most powerful and impactful families in the history of organized crime in the United States. At first, Maranzano envisioned the organization to function in a way where the heads of every family would answer to him because he was considering himself to be the “boss of all bosses.” However, he was assassinated, and the role he intended for himself was taken over by the Commission. The Commission served as a governing board that would oversee the activity of the Mafia members all over the United States. In time, other crime families managed to come close to the size and power of the Five Families, but they remain at the top, as the most powerful in history.
5. The Lucchese Family
The Lucchese family originated in the 1920s and was known as the Gagliano family at the start. Their first boss was Gaetano Reina, but Tommy Gagliano replaced him after he was murdered. They were known as the most peaceful family and remained low key with their operations. They mostly operated through the Bronx, Manhattan, and New Jersey.
After Tommy Lucchese took over the reins of the family, they changed their name and became one of the most notorious families in The Commission.
4. The Genovese Family
The Genovese crime family was tied with a large number of smaller families outside of New York. They were initially called the Luciano family and were founded by Lucky Luciano, a famous gangster. In 1957 it was renamed to the Genovese family by its new boss Vito Genovese. They held control of the West Side of Manhattan and were run for years by Vincent Gigante.
Nicknamed “The Chin,” Vincent would often roam the streets unshaven and acted like crazy, so people would not suspect him of being linked to the Mafia and prosecute him. Today they remain the most organized and powerful crime family in the U.S.
3. The Gambino Family
Previously known as the Mangano crime family, this group changed a large number of bosses in the first half of the 20th century. It was named after Carlo Gambino in 1963 after the public started paying more attention to the workings of the criminal underworld. This group operated all over the U.S., and its activities include, but were not limited to; extortion, money laundering, prostitution, gambling, racketeering, and labor and construction.
They were the most powerful crime family for a certain period starting with 1957 when Carlo Gambino assassinated the previous leader Albert Anastasia and took over the family. Famous gangster John Gotti led this family through the 1980s and the 1990s.
2. The Colombo Family
This crime family was previously known as the Profaci family. It is the youngest of the Five Families, being recognized as one of the families during the time Lucky Luciano was running the American Mafia. It started as a bootlegging gang that was formed in 1928 by Joseph Profaci. He ruled the family until the 1950s, and during his rule, there were a lot of internal struggles in the family.
It almost got destroyed, but in the 1960s, Joseph Colombo managed to unite the family again. There was another family war, and the family finally found a long-lasting peace under the rule of Carmine Persico, starting with 1975.
1. The Bonanno Family
The Bonanno crime family, known initially as the Maranzano family, was considered to be one of the most powerful in the entire United States. It gained its notoriety during the leadership of Joseph Bonanno, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Bonanno was so powerful he even attempted to overtake the Commission, but he never managed to do so. The Bonanno family is famous for many stories, one of which was the source for a famous Hollywood movie called “Donnie Brasco.”
During the late 1970s, an FBI agent calling himself Donnie Brasco infiltrated the crime family, and this was the reason the Bonanno family was kicked out of the Commission until the 1990s. The Bonanno Family members were known for their brutality.