Joe Aiello had broken troth with his former business partner, Antonio Lombardo, and was actively scheming to kill Lombardo and his colleague in crime, Al Capone. On May, 28, 1927, Aiello’s bakery, located here at 473 W. Division St., took the brunt of Lombardo and Capone’s ire when it was riddled with over 200 machine gun bullets from in a gangland drive-by shooting.
Giuseppe Aiello, known as “Joe”, was born in 1890 in Sicily, into a very large family. Most accounts claim he was the oldest of seven brothers, but others indicate up to ten Aiello brothers, plus an unknown number of cousins, uncles, and nephews. Most of the family emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 1900s, including Joe, who arrived at New York in 1907, then moved west to Chicago shortly after.
Food was the family business, and Joe operated first as a cheese-maker and grocer in the Little Sicily enclave on the near North side (also known as “Little Hell” for the poverty and violence that infested its streets). With his brothers, he also opened a wholesale bakery specializing in supersized wedding cakes and Italian breads, Aiello & Co., at 473 W. Division, near the corner of Clybourn Ave. He also held part ownership in a candy shop near Oak St. and Cleveland Ave. (then known as Milton St.), the original “Death Corner,” a popular Black Hand meeting (and “disposal”) ground.
At the onset of the 1920s, the Aiello clan was already prominent in the Sicilian-American community. National alcohol prohibition raised their profile further. During Prohibition, grocers played a particularly important role in the production of bootleg alcohol, since they could purchase and store large quantities of important distilling ingredients, such as sugar and grapes, without arousing the suspicions of police. Joe Aiello used his position as one of the neighborhood’s top grocers to become deeply involved in the business of illicit booze.
He joined forces with another prominent Sicilian grocer, Antonio Lombardo, and the two opened an import business on Randolph Street and purchased property on the west side at Kinzie and Halsted for an even larger operation. At the time, Lombardo was also president of the Unione Siciliana, the primary Italian organization in Chicago, a position that made him the most respected man in the immigrant community, and a political “fixer” with connections in city government and law enforcement. The Unione was a key element in organizing the massive, dispersed network of tiny home distilleries that supplied the low-quality liquor that was eventually retailed through Al Capone’s syndicate.
Together with Lombardo and Capone, Joe Aiello ruled Chicago’s illegal alcohol trade into early 1926. The decline and fall of their fellow Sicilian booze entrepreneurs, the “Terrible Genna” brothers, in 1925 gave Aiello and Lombardo an even more important role to play in this business. But Aiello was too ambitious to be just one important part of the machine. He needed to control it all. He was especially jealous of Lombardo’s position at the Unione and the respect it earned him among their countrymen. And he despised Capone, a non-Sicilian he considered untrustworthy and undeserving of his wealth. Aiello’s constant attempts to control more of the alcohol syndicate eventually led to a break with Lombardo in 1926, and an all-out war for the control of the Unione and the Little Sicily neighborhood.
Aiello began working closely with the Northside Gang run by George “Bugs” Moran and Jack Zuta, while Lombardo remained close with Capone. Both Lombardo and Aiello keenly courted Sicilian grocers, demanding their loyalty and supply capacity. For his part, Aiello openly put price tags on the heads of Lombardo and Capone, offering up to $50,000 each to a series of hitmen in return for their lives.
In one important case, Aiello made a $35,000 deal with a cook at the “Little Italy” restaurant, located at 22nd and Cicero Ave., in the suburb of Cicero, to spice Capone and Lombardo’s soup bowls with prussic acid. The cook wisely decided against fulfilling the task and confessed the deal to Capone.
Other Aiello family members were also involved in warfare with Capone and Lombardo. Tony Aiello, Joe’s brother, was positively identified by a boy eyewitness as the murderer of Antonio “The Cavalier” Spano, a Capone associate operating out of Chicago Heights, who met his end just a block away from the Aiello brothers’ bakery on Division St. Tony managed to beat the rap despite the witness’ identification.
Joe Aiello also attempted to hijack the Unione from outside, sending a gaggle of his brothers and nephews to St. Louis in an attempt to build a rival organization that he could eventually bring to Chicago. Their attempts to consolidate power in that city led to a dozen murders in 1927, including the deaths of two Aiello brothers while sitting in a restaurant in Springfield, Illinois.
Lombardo and Capone realized that Aiello would stop at nothing to gain control of the Unione and the alcohol business in Chicago. On the evening of May 28, 1927, just after nightfall, a curtained touring car filled with four Capone gangsters cruised past the Aiello bakery on Division St., produced machine guns, and carpeted the building from side to side with a tremendous fusillade. By the end of it, over 200 bullets had lodged in the roof, floor, and walls.
At the time, Joe was in the bakery with his brothers, Dominic and Tony, along with two employees. Tony was hit in the neck, and dropped to the floor screaming “I’m dead,” while one of the employees was also shot in the side. Dominic and Joe were upstairs and managed to dodge
the bullets. As soon as their assailants departed, Joe and Dominic helped Tony out of the building and into surgery under the care of a friendly family physician (Tony survived). By the time the police arrived, only one employee remained in the bakery to tell the tale. Officers were unsurprised to find that Aiello & Co. was one of the city’s most well-armed cupcake retailers – a case filled with shotguns was discovered in a back room.
(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery, facing the mirrored back wall, which was shattered by bullets)
One Joseph Paglisia was arrested for the crime a few days later, as he was spotted driving through Little Sicily with a Florida license in a car similar to that from which the bombardment of the Aiello bakery had originated. It was a custom with the Capone organization for particularly spectacular hits to be performed by gunmen imported from outside Chicago. Nevertheless, the police were unable to find any further evidence against Paglisia, and he was released. No one else was ever fingered for the crime.
The attack at Aiello & Co. raised the stakes in the feud over the Unione, and that summer, nine Italian grocers were found dead, likely caught in the war between Aiello and Lombardo. Aiello also stepped up his attempts to kill Lombardo. Instead of attempting to procure a hit, he decided to organize one himself. Police discovered machine gun nests across the street from Lombardo’s home on W. Washington Blvd. (an event that caused Lombardo to move his family out to Cicero), and across the street from Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna’s cigar shop on S. Clark St., a common meeting place for Capone and Lombardo.
In retaliation, Aiello and his Northside Gang allies saw bombs explode at several of the businesses, including a brothel located at Adams and Halsted – Capone territory – and a disorderly hotel at Madison and Western. The violence in the city produced by the feud in late 1927 was tremendous. The police organized roving groups of officers, armed with automatic weapons and with orders to kill on sight any known gangsters. Chief of Detectives William O’Connor (who took over that position after Michael Hughes was demoted for being too chummy with gangland figures), took an especially hard line on crime:
The machine gun is a much better weapon than the law to fight gangsters with. If we would hold more murder trials in the street rather than trust timorous juries to convict killers, Chicago would not now be facing a gang crisis.1927 also saw Joe and Dominic Aiello build a beautiful new home for themselves and their wives, far from the Little Sicily slums where they grew up, in Rogers’ Park, overlooking Indian Boundary Park. That building, 2553 W. Lunt Ave., is still there, though it has since been
subdivided into flats.
(Pictured: 2553 W. Lunt Ave., as it stands today (above), and in 1930 (beneath). During the 1920s, this was the home of Joe and Dominic Aiello. The building appears to have changed little over the past 80 years, although the landscaping has improved).
In January, 1928, the Aiello bakery was again targeted. This time, it appears that Dominic was the target of an assassination plot. On the evening of Jan. 5, two men, armed with pistols and shotguns, walked into the building on W. Division, expecting to see Dominic at his usual post. In fact, Dominic had left the business at 4:00 that afternoon, but one of the bakers was still there, and began walking towards the door to greet them. Suddenly, the two opened fire, pouring all of their ammunition into the walls and ceiling, particularly the place where Dominic usually stood. They took no consideration of the baker, who was now cowering behind a glass case, though in full sight. Having emptied their guns, the men dropped their weapons and left the building as quickly as they had arrived. Likely they did not know that, while Dominic had left for the day, his wife, Grace, and their three children were just in the adjoining room. All escaped injury.
(Pictured: interior of the Aiello bakery after the Jan., 1928 shootout there. Arrows point to bullet holes in the walls and ceiling)
The summer of 1928 saw continued warfare between Aiello and Lombardo. In June, the bullet-riddled corpses of two Capone henchmen, John Oliveri and Joseph Salamone, were discovered at Death Corner, a half-block from the Aiello confectionary on Oak St. A month later, one of Aiello’s bodyguards, Anthony “Tough Tony” Califura, met his end in a drive-by shooting at North Ave. and Wells St. Four days later, an Aiello uncle was murdered in his Little Sicily grocery store, just south of Death Corner.
Finally, on September 7, 1928, Antonio Lombardo was murdered in broad daylight near the corner of Dearborn and Madison, in the full view of thousands of pedestrians. His killers escaped, but no one doubted that the Aiellos were behind the hit.
After the death of Lombardo, Joe Aiello saw an opportunity to finally gain control of the Unione Siciliana, but Capone and other allies managed to install Pasqualino Lolordo, a Lombardo associate, as president instead. To Joe Aiello, this simply meant one more bullet was needed, and in January, 1929, Lolordo was killed by three assailants while sharing drinks at his North Ave. apartment. At police headquarters, Mrs. Lolordo, who was preparing dinner in the adjoining kitchen at the time of the murder, was shown a photo lineup of potential assassins. She screamed when she saw Joe Aiello’s picture. While he was likely not one of the actual assassins (later evidence suggested the three assailants were Northside Gang members Frank and Peter Gusenberg, plus James Clark – all three later died in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre), there was no doubt that Joe Aiello had organized the hit.
Finally, in 1929 and early 1930, most sources indicate that Joe Aiello finally did fulfill his long-time dream of becoming Unione Siciliana president. During this time, Al Capone was incarcerated in Philadelphia on weapons violations charges (he likely entered prison under his own volition as a way to protect himself from the spiraling violence on the streets of Chicago). For his part, Aiello spent much of his term as president hiding out in Northwest Indiana, a fugitive from police who wanted him for questioning regarding the Lolordo murder.
By late 1930, Aiello had returned to Chicago, but so had Capone, and old rivalries die hard. Joe Aiello was killed in an ambush on the far west side, near the Cicero border, on October 23 of that year. The rest of the Aiello family remained active in the underworld, eventually mending fences with the remnant of Capone’s organization, the Outfit, in the 1930s. In New York, the Aiellos are associated with the Bonanno organization, one of the “Five Families” in that city.
The old Aiello bakery remained in the family into the 1940s, serving as the headquarters for the San Giuseppi di Bagheria society, an Italian community organization focused on Bagherian immigrants (the locale in Sicily where the Aiellos originated). The building was destroyed in the early 1950s to make way for the Cabrini housing projects. In the 1990s, most of the major Cabrini-Green projects were razed, and replaced by upscale condominiums and mixed-income public housing. Where Aiello & Co. once baked wedding cakes and planned a takeover of Chicago’s bootlegging industry, a condominium building has recently been constructed.