The term Mustache Pete typically refers to members of the Italian-American mafia during the earlier part of its existence. The Italian-American mafia is widely believed to have its roots in the Sicilian mafia, although the two organizations are today considered distinct and separate. The organization is believed to have developed in New York City in the later years of the 19th century, when thousands of Italian immigrants entered the United States. The mafia in America began as small gangs who practiced racketeering and other criminal activities within the confines of their own neighborhoods. Prohibition granted these gangs the opportunity to become more powerful and sophisticated, and, in the late 1920s, a gang conflict known as the Castellammarese war pitted older, more established gang members, known as Mustache Petes, against younger rivals.
Prohibition allowed Italian-American mafia gangs to take control of the production and distribution of bootleg liquor. The distribution of illegal liquor generally proved quite profitable for these groups, such that they were able to increase their power and gain political clout through the bribing of public officials. As the individual gangs grew stronger, they began to fight one another for control of various areas of turf. In the Castellammarese war, two of New York City's largest gangs fought not only over control of turf, but over differing ideas about how the organization as a whole should be administered.
The term Mustache Pete originally described those members who believed in upholding the traditions of the Sicilian mafia. The Mustache Pete gangsters wanted to organize the entire Italian-American mafia under one boss, Salvatore Maranzano. A rival faction led by the younger Lucky Luciano ultimately deposed Maranzano, and formed an organization made up of many gangs, headed by a commission of leaders who would serve as joint administrators. Today, it is believed that members of the Italian-American mafia are discouraged from wearing mustaches, as they are considered reminiscent of the Mustache Pete era.
The Italian-American mafia has typically been organized into families headed by a patriarchal leader. This leader is considered to possess absolute authority over all family members beneath him, and generally receives a share of everyone's profits. The leader of a mafia family usually selects underlings, known as made men, who are then normally initiated into the organization as family members. They are considered to have more status over lesser members, or associates, who participate in the organization and its activities but are not considered members of the family. There have historically been several such crime families in operation in various parts of the United States.