Filed Under Organized Crime

Joe Tito

Joseph “Joe” Tito was a bootlegger, numbers banker, and brewery executive. He was close friends with William A. “Gus” Greenlee. During Prohibition, the pair dominated illegal rackets throughout the city. They also made Negro Leagues baseball history as owners of the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Greenlee Field. After Prohibition ended, Tito and his brothers introduced one of Pennsylvania’s most iconic brands, Rolling Rock beer.

Born in 1890, Tito was the oldest of eight children Raphael and Rosa Tito had after arriving in Pittsburgh from their native Italy. The Titos lived in an extended family enclave on Gazzam Hill near the intersection of Kirkpatrick Street and Fifth Avenue. 

When Prohibition began in 1920, Joe and his brothers Frank, Robert, Anthony, and Ralph went into business transporting illegal beer and liquor. The Titos built their bootlegging business with a fleet of trucks. 

In 1922 Joe Tito bought a fashionable Victorian house at 1817 Fifth Avenue. He built a two-story brick garage in the rear and began using the property as his home and office. He and his brothers used the garage to store their bootlegging truck fleet.

Between 1922 and 1932, the Titos made headlines as local and federal law enforcement officers arrested them and seized their trucks. Joe, the ringleader, did time in the Allegheny County jail on state and federal charges. By the time Prohibition was winding down, Joe Tito had joined Greenlee, Woogie Harris, Jack Cancelliere, and Frank Nathan as one of Pittsburgh’s top numbers bankers.

Pittsburgh, like other cities, had developed an early and deep organized crime history. Italian extortion rings called themselves the “Black Hand” and Black gambling entrepreneurs refined policy gambling and numbers rackets. 

Though oftentimes incorrectly called “the Mafia,” organized crime groups were divided along ethnic and racial lines. Not all Italian racketeers were members of the Mafia but all Mafia members were Italians. Jews, African Americans, and Irish racketeers could be affiliated with Mafia rackets but they could never be members.

Joe Tito was among Pittsburgh’s earliest Mafia members or close associates soon after Charles “Lucky” Luciano consolidated his New York-based power among families in major cities throughout the United States. Luciano’s violent power play manifested itself with several high-profile assassinations in New York and other cities. Locally, Giuseppe “Joe” Siragusa, Pittsburgh’s “Yeast Baron,” was killed in 1931 in his Squirrel Hill home. The 1932 massacre of three Volpe brothers in a Wylie Avenue coffee shop has become enshrined as a turning point in local mob lore.

As one of the last people seen with John Volpe the day of the coffee shop massacre, Tito immediately became a person of interest in the law enforcement investigation. “Racket King Quizzed on Volpes,” read one headline in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph on August 2, 1932. “Joe Tito, friend of the Volpes and reputed kingpin of two rackets—beer and numbers— was questioned by homicide detectives.” 

Tito also was a viable suspect because word on the street was that the Volpes had begun infringing on his Hill District and Oakland territory. He was questioned and subsequently released. The Post-Gazette reported that Tito received “special consideration” during the investigation. 

As the Volpe drama was playing itself out, Tito and Greenlee were making big plans for post-Prohibition business. Greenlee and his partners bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1930. The next year, they filed new incorporation papers in Delaware which listed the new company’s owners: Gus Greenlee, Joe Tito, and Thomas J. Higgins.

Using straw men (names used to conceal actual owners) as a front, Greenlee and Tito in 1931 formed the Bedford Land Company. Two years later, Greenlee, Tito, Higgins, and two others replaced the original owners and officers. The company hired Pittsburgh’s only practicing Black architect, Louis A.S. Bellinger to design and build a new sports and entertainment venue: Greenlee Field. Bellinger, a decade earlier had designed and built the Central Amusement Park.

At the same time that Tito was working with Greenlee in their sports businesses, he and his brothers were making long-term plans to stay in the alcoholic beverage industry. In 1932, the Tito brothers bought the Pittsburgh Brewing Company’s assets in Latrobe, Westmoreland County.. Before Prohibition, the company had brewed German lagers and other regional favorites.

When Prohibition’s last call sounded in 1933, Joe Tito was well on his way to leaving the underworld and joining the ranks of legitimate businesspersons. He was one of a handful of former bootleggers around the United States who secured state liquor licenses and began producing and selling liquor and beer legally. He joined the ranks of Joseph Kennedy, Sam Bronfman (Seagrams), and Lewis Rosenstiel (Schenley Distillers).

By the 1940s, the Titos became the Latrobe Brewing Company’s sole owners and officers. They brewed their beer in Latrobe and sold it throughout the United States. The Titos’ first Pittsburgh beer distributorship at 1818 Colwell Street was the site where in 1935 Rolling Rock beer was first sold.

Joe Tito continued to live at 1817 Fifth Avenue until 1947. His health declining, he and his wife Katherine sold the house to Joe’s sister, Anna, and they moved into a new Squirrel Hill apartment. Joe Tito died there in 1949 at age 58. 

Images

1817 Fifth Avenue Joe Tito’s home and business headquarters at 1817 Fifth Avenue. Photo by David S. Rotenstein. Creator: David S. Rotenstein Date: December 12, 2021
1818 Colwell Street Joe Tito built this garage in 1922 at 1818 Colwell Street to store his fleet of bootlegging trucks. After Prohibition ended, it became the Tito family’s first beer distributorship and it is the first place that Rolling Rock beer was sold in 1935. Creator: David S. Rotenstein Date: November 19, 2021
The Titos in Hot Springs Joe and Katherine Tito in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Undated photo courtesy of Richard Tito.
Tito Family Photo Joe Tito (standing, rear right) in an undated family photo. Tito’s parents are seated in the middle row: Rosa (second from the left) and Raphael (second from the Right). Photo courtesy of Richard Tito.
Rolling Rock Ad Early Rolling Rock beer ad showing the Tito’s beer distributorship at 1818 Colwell Street. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazett, via newspapers.com. Date: September 20, 1939
1933 Crawfords Letterhead Source: Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Libraries, Archives and Special Collections. Date: May 4, 1933.

Location

1817 Fifth Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

David S. Rotenstein, “Joe Tito,” Hill District Digital History, accessed May 29, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/61.