Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
Lane Pellinger, chef at Solitude, cuts pieces of lamb for Marco Parlanti at the new Italian Center.

Pam Scarpelli remembers growing up in Chicago, where Italian-Americans had a well-defined community where they could gather. And that's something she says Utah has lacked — at least until now.

Scarpelli was among more than 200 people who attended Thursday's grand opening of the Italian Center of the West.

"We've been missing this," said Scarpelli, who's called Utah home since 1967. "This now gives us a place to be."

"I believe what we are celebrating today is the beginning of a new trend," director Adriano Comollo said at the ribbon cutting, which was followed by a celebration with Italian food and music.

The center, located across the street from Pioneer Park in a Italian-street-themed square, is exhibiting art by Utah's Italian-Americans. Comollo said the non-profit center is open, after about a year of planning, thanks to about $10,000 in donations and free rent from the adjacent Tony Caputo's Market.

Organizers say the center will serve as a meeting place for Utah's Italian groups, offer Italian lessons, feature an Italian TV channel, and even a court for bocce, a game similar to bowling that is played in the sand. Comollo said it will eventually serve as a museum, exhibiting Italian-American photographs donated from the community.

Mayor Rocky Anderson said the center is an example of "city living at its best."

"Today we're celebrating the very best of what our community is about," Anderson said. "It benefits the Italian-American community, but also the entire community."

Mary Anselmi Ravarino, whose father immigrated from the Trentini, or Alps region, says the center will give Italians a place where she can gather with other Italian-Americans, and just chat in Italian.

The center is important "just to give people a place they can learn more about their heritage," she said. "The (non-Italian) citizens can also come and learn more about the Italian-American heritage."

Antonella Mirabella-Kelly said the center will give Italian-Americans the "opportunity to speak in our own language, share and feel a little better at home."

For Lilia Dryden, who's married to an Italian-American, the center will give her a place to practice as she learns to speak Italian.

More than 20,000 Italian-Americans are living in Utah, according to Giovanni G. Maschero, Utah's vice consul of Italy. Maschero said the center is the start of a "vision of the future, to all be together and in peace."

A wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Utah, and other Western states, during the 1800s and early 1900s, mainly to work in mines. Many, like Ravarino's father and grandfather before, came because of economic hardships.

"They had young families back in Italy; they earned some money, and were able to help their families," Ravarino said. "They all were looking for a better life."