Lidia Bastianich was only nine years old when her family escaped from Yugoslavia, at the time under the heel of the communist Josip Broz Tito, eventually going on to build one of the most successful food empires in the U.S.
Continue Reading Below
Born in 1947 at the precipice of the Cold War, Bastianich grew up in Istria, a peninsula located at the head of the Adriatic Sea that was governed by the newly formed Yugoslavia. Tito, who operated under a policy of neutrality, developed an early rift with Josef Stalin and most of the Eastern Bloc.
“At the time, there was a big exodus, those 350,000 Italians who went back to Italy,” Bastianich told FOX Business’ Maria Bartiromo during an interview on Tuesday. “But I was just born, and my parents, where were they going to go with a small baby? We remained, and the Iron Curtain went up, and we got caught under communism.”
It wasn’t until 1956 that Bastianich’s parents -- tired of the lack of economic opportunities, and the life lived hidden in the shadows -- decided to flee. Bastianich, along with her mother and brother, left to visit family on the other side of Istria, obtaining the travel visa by pretending her aunt was sick.
Because the regime didn’t allow entire families to travel together, her father was forced to stay behind, rejoining them several weeks later after a daunting escape. The family lived in a refugee camp run by Catholic charities for two years, “hoping we would come to America,” she said.
In 1958, the Bastianich’s immigration request was finally approved. They arrived in the U.S. with no family and no friends, only the Italian community and Catholic relief charities who found the family a home, and a job for her father.
Bastianich eventually went on to hone her Italian cooking skills, opening up restaurants in New York City, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as launch her own television series that’s garnered five James Beard awards and an Emmy award. She’s also a co-owner of the sprawling Italian-food emporium in Manhattan, Eataly
“America it was so welcoming, such a great country,” Bastianich said. “Sometimes when I hear all of these things I say: But people, this is the greatest country. Look at me. It was all the opportunities. We’ve got to cherish that, and we’ve got to protect it.”