The Italians who built Leaside

The Badalis in the 1980s.
The Badalis in the 1980s.

The burgeoning town of Leaside was governed and inhabited by folks called McRae, Horsfall, Talbot, Manes and Nealson – scions of Waspy Toronto with deep local roots – but men and women with names like Badali, Bellomo and deMarco, more recent arrivals from the Old World, built it. Italians were largely responsible for contributing to the residential architectural aesthetic and providing daily services which we still enjoy today. Their stories are testaments of perseverance – even in the face of adversity – culminating in enduring local legacies.

Badali’s still offers fresh fruit and veg

Providing fresh fruit and vegetables, Badali’s market has been operating on Bayview for over 80 years. Customers rely on their attention to detail, knowledgeable customer service and quality produce. Once through the door at 1587 Bayview – a building whose façade retains its streamlined Art Deco chrome flourishes – you sense continuity and permanence. It feels that not much has changed, in a good way.

Brothers Sal and Dom run the shop today, but it was their dad Leo, uncle Sam and grandmother Rose who decided to locate in Leaside back in 1938. They branched out from where the family ran fruit and vegetable stores on Gerrard and also on the Danforth. Living quarters were above number 1587 and also above a butcher shop just down the road.  Once Leo married, he had his eye on a home on Macnaughton, just opposite St. Anselm’s Church. Only problem was the owner refused to sell to an Italian – which speaks to the prejudice at the time, exacerbated by the war. To get around this impasse Dom explains that his dad had a good friend, the owner of Marwood Motors (where the Leaside Station-Eglinton Crosstown line is now located), who bought the house and then turned around and sold it to Leo – that was in 1948 when the house cost $5,000. There were no hateful incidents leveled at the shop during the war but family on the Danforth endured racial slurs and even eggings of their front windows.

The deMarcos built Leaside

Italians also built bricks and mortar infrastructure. Sam deMarco lived on Sutherland Drive and was busy in the late 1930s building apartment houses and shops along Millwood Road. He constructed the two-storey walkups – solid brick buildings with simple yet symmetrical features – on both sides of Millwood between Sutherland and Airdrie. In 1938 he built a row of shops on Millwood between Rumsey and Airdrie. Number 854 was first home to the Dominion grocery market and in 1957 was sold to Sing Chu, who opened China Food, still in business today. At the entranceway the pigmented structural glass tile wall, one of deMarco’s signature flourishes, is beautifully intact. His son Nicholas, at the age of 18, signed up with the RCAF, flew 39 missions as a bombardier, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery.

A prolific builder

By far the most prolific builder in Leaside was John Bellomo. He immigrated to Toronto in 1930 and died in 1954 at the age of 42. During this time, he built hundreds of homes, scores of shops, and had a family. His eldest son Bob explains that John, fair-haired and blue eyed, came from the Friuli region of northern Italy. A carpenter by trade, he teamed up with friends Tersigni and Gri, forming a partnership in 1937, building houses in South Leaside east of Bessborough on Airdrie, Sutherland and Astor. In 1940 he married and decided to go it alone business-wise. Throughout the ’40s and into the early ’50s he built between 12 and 15 houses a year – in total more than 150 Leaside homes, most of which stand today. In 1952 he built and donated a house on Richlea Circle off Rykert to the Lion’s Club so it could be raffled off to raise money for Leaside Memorial Gardens. He also built 332 Bessborough, once owned by the Harper family…yes that Harper family! In 1943 he branched out into building shops, constructing 1699 to 1739 Bayview Ave. Son Jerry remembers that Bellomo owned the corner property (where Remax is located today) and that the apartment attached at the back, 1A Parkhurst Blvd., rented for $80 a month. He was a heavy smoker of Sweet Caporals, a strong cigarette, which son Bob reckons caused the lung cancer that brought an untimely end to a life of hard work, service, success and philanthropy.

Leaside was known as the small town that, while not fashionable, worked efficiently, reflecting Anglo-Saxon values and ethics. The story not told is that of the entrepreneurial Italians who built the houses, apartments, shops and businesses that define the look and feel of our community.