Type to search

Italian family businesses give rise to iconic global brands


The list of Italian family-business success stories includes such names as illy, Piaggo, Ferrero, Benetton and many others. Today we look closer at two iconic global brands that had their origins in il bel paese.

Francesco Illy was born in Hungary in 1892 and found work in Trieste after World War I. In Trieste he studied economics and eventually found a job at Caffe’ Hausbrandt which was the first Italian coffee roasting company. After an apprenticeship he decided to start his own coffee company in 1933. Two years later he invented the illetta which was the prototype for the first modern espresso machine. In the 1940s his revolutionary packaging design based on pressurization allowed illy to export his coffee to Sweden and Holland. During the 1950s, Ernesto, his son, continued the innovative design tradition by pressurizing smaller cans of coffee for the home that continue to set the industry standard for preserving freshness. In 1974 Ernesto created (E.S.E.), Easy Serving Espresso which were the first espresso pods.  Since its inception illy remains the benchmark for the best fresh Italian coffee known the world over.


Giovanni Agnelli was born in Torino in 1866. He studied law at the University of Torino and became known as l ’avvocato yet he never practiced law. After the Il Risorgimento in 1871 Torino became the first capital of the Republic of Italy. However, once the capital moved to Firenze a few years later, Torino quickly lost its prestige. Consequently, Torino began a resurgence as a city known for innovation and entrepreneurship. Agnelli became part of this wave. In 1899 he joined other investors in the fledgling auto industry with the birth of FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino). The first model was the FIAT 4 HP or 3 ½ CV. Due to the popularity of the new horseless carriage, by 1910 FIAT became the No. 1 auto manufacturer in Italy.

Due to the devastation of World War II, most cities were in ruin. The result of this tragedy was the birth of “il miracolo economico” or the Boom. The Italian Economic Boom was a convergence of technology and convenience not seen before the war. Enzo Piaggio changed his airplane factories to make motors for bicycles. The Vespa was born.

Volkswagen had built the first People’s Car (the Beetle) in 1937, but production stopped during the war. Agnelli wanted to build an Italian People’s Car.  In 1957 Dante Giacosa designed the iconic FIAT 500.  Launched in July of the same year this tiny car  “Topolino” that was built for the narrow Italian medieval streets very quickly earned the name of “The People’s Car.” Measuring just over 2.5 meters long (9 feet) and powered by a 479-cc two-cylinder, air-cooled engine, it was considered to be the first true city car for the Italian driving population.

The Cinquecento over the years has continued to be the most popular car sold in Europe. Six million cars have been sold all over the world.  This humble design that embodies midcentury modern design principles of economics, comfort and affordability has been added to the permanent collection at MoMA (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) in New York. In 2024 the legacy will continue with the birth of the first FIAT 500 EV.

Adesso lo sa.

Lou Thomas

Lou Thomas was born and raised in Philadelphia, in a family with origins in Abruzzo. He is a Temple graduate who has been teaching Italian for 20 years at all levels. He attained a master’s degree in teaching Italian from Rutgers University. The sounds of Vivaldi and Jovanotti fill his classroom. His favorite quote is Il vino e’ la poesia della terra.

  • 1

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.