The first Italians who came to Melbourne were adventurers or ex-convicts. Carlo Brentani, transported to Van Diemen's Land, became a respectable silversmith in Collins Street and was commissioned to craft the winner's trophy for the 1849 Flemington races.
Gold brought approximately 4000 Italian speakers to the colony, many from the Valtellina and the neighbouring Swiss cantons of Tessin and Grisons. Most returned home but a small number settled in Victoria as farmers and small business owners. The wealth generated from gold attracted an influential group of Italians over succeeding decades including opera singer Pietro Cecchi (Dame Nellie Melba's first teacher), musician Alberto Zelman Snr, Carlo Catani (who was responsible for major engineering works), Ettore Checchi (a senior officer with the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works), Government astronomer, Pietro Baracchi, and Ferdinando Gagliardi, State Librarian. Skilled craftsmen also arrived and were contracted to work for British builders and architects developing some of Melbourne's notable buildings such as the Block Arcade and the ANZ Bank, Collins Street.
In the 1890s a number of skilled street musicians from Viggiano entertained Melburnians playing the harp and the violin. They formed a small community in Little Lonsdale Street before moving to Carlton. Many immigrants from the Eolian Islands (Sicily) also settled in Melbourne and opened 'fruit palaces' in suburbs such as Windsor, Hawthorn, Brighton, Flemington, Brunswick and Richmond. Popular restaurants such as Fasoli's and Rinaldi's Café e Cucina Italiana in Lonsdale Street opened their doors at the turn of the 20th century.
Immigration from Italy came to a halt during World War I, resuming in the 1920s and gaining impetus after the United States closed its doors in 1924. By 1933 census figures show there were 5860 Italians in Victoria. The majority of those who settled in Melbourne were from the Veneto region and lived around Carlton. Many worked in construction, terrazzo paving and retailing, establishing their own businesses.
The pre-World War II immigrants were particularly entrepreneurial (in 1933 52.8% were self-employed) establishing themselves as greengrocers, tailors, shoemakers and bakers in small businesses that became meeting places for local communities. Their success and reputation were based on supplying quality produce, expert advice and good community relations. Restaurants such as Molina's Café D'Italia and Triaca's Latin in Lonsdale Street, Massoni's Florentino and Codognotto's Italian Society in Bourke Street, and Vigano's Mario's in Exhibition Street established themselves as industry icons. Through community clubs such as the Benevolent Eolian Island Society and the Cavour Club, established in Carlton and South Melbourne respectively, Italians were able to maintain customs and traditions, create supportive community networks and provide assistance for new arrivals.
Italian immigrants had been well accepted until World War II when anti-Italian sentiment became widespread. As enemy aliens Italians were subject to restrictions which deprived them of freedom of speech and movement. Many lost their jobs and were prohibited from attending social gatherings. Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Australian Labor Party politician Arthur Calwell publicly supported the Italian community and encouraged the formation of support organisations, such as the Archbishop's Relief Committee. Under the leadership of Carlton-based Lena Santospirito, this support group later worked to assist the unprecedented numbers of Italian migrants who began arriving in Melbourne as part of Australia's mass immigration program in 1949.
Although Italy and Australia had signed an agreement in 1951 that allowed Italian emigrants to be eligible for the Commonwealth nomination scheme for assisted passage under the Inter-governmental Committee for European Migration program, the majority of Italian immigrants paid their own fares and were sponsored by relatives or paesani already in Australia. Between 1947 and 1961 Italians in Victoria increased from 8305 to 91 075. They found employment in infrastructure and construction, automotive, engineering, textile and fashion and the food production and service industry. The main reason for such an influx was the destruction caused by the war and the resulting poverty in Italian regional and country areas.
While maintaining their traditional roles as wives and mothers, transmitting regional customs, family values and skills, Italian immigrant women contributed to the well-being of their family by joining the paid workforce, most for the first time. Many became process workers in large manufacturing industries but others put their traditional needlework skills to use by entering the fashion and textile industries, working for clothing companies located in Flinders Lane.
The 1952 and the 1961 Australian economic recessions caused much distress among both assisted and unassisted immigrants, who had left behind wives, children and even ageing parents to feed and often large debts to repay. These two periods saw Italian immigrants publicly protesting against the lack of government support that was bitterly felt among migrants housed in isolated migrant hostels.
By the 1960s distinct Italian communities began to grow in urban and regional areas such as Brunswick, Coburg, Preston, Essendon and Oakleigh. The number of Italian regional clubs and associations increased, replicating the village life and the network system the immigrants left behind. They were also important venues for meeting prospective wives at a time when there was substantial disparity in the sex ratio.
Italian-language newspapers were published in Melbourne from the 1920s. Between the wars Il Giornale Italiano was the voice of the Italian community. After World War II Carlton-based Il Globo became the most widely read Italian-language newspaper in Victoria and an advocate for Italian migrant workers. Italian-language radio programs began broadcasting in the early 1970s on the ethnic radio 3EA. To meet the needs of Italian immigrants, the Italian government established the welfare association Co.As.It in Melbourne in 1964. Its first president, Elda Vaccari, remained at the helm for almost a decade. Italian party-political organisations also established welfare agencies, such as FILEF and ANFE.
In 1971 Italian immigration to Victoria peaked at 121 758, since declining to the point where it is almost non-existent today. However, statistically, Italian-born and second-generation Italians constitute the largest non-English-speaking community in Australia. The greatest concentration of Italians in Australia continues to be found in Victoria with Carlton being identified as the centre of Italian cultural life. Large numbers of Italians settled there because of its proximity to industries and the availability of affordable accommodation, especially in boarding houses run by Italian families. However, with expanding employment opportunities, Italians moved out of inner suburbs, establishing communities in Brimbank, Darebin, Hume, Manningham, Moonee Valley, Moreland, Monash and Whittlesea, which at the 2001 census showed the highest concentrations of populations of Italian descent.
Today Carlton continues to maintain its Italian identity mainly through fashion shops and restaurants and celebrates its heritage with an annual Lygon Street Festa.