It was on 30 June, 1933, that Italian aviator Italo Balbo took flight with a squadron of 24 Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats in a historic transatlantic crossing from Rome to Chicago. He would land on Lake Michigan near the fairgrounds on 15 July.
Italo Balbo was a veteran of the First World War who was decorated more than once for valor. After the war he joined Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement, in which he quickly rose to prominence and later fell into frequent conflict. In honor of the flight, the Italian government would donate an ancient Roman column from an archeological site at Ostia, Italy. The column remains on display at Chicago’s lakefront.
The arrival of the flying boats in Chicago was a grand spectacle, leading to endless accolades and honors for Balbo (he is pictured above being honored by the Sioux Nation). He dined with Franklin Roosevelt in the White House, was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross, spoke in Madison Square Garden and in Chicago, 7th Street was renamed in his honor and remains so to this day.
In 1940, Balbo would lose his life in a ‘friendly fire’ incident when his plane was mistook for enemy aircraft and shot down by a ground crew in Tobruk, Libya, which was under Italian occupation at the time.