Bonanno first came to the United States as a 3 year old, in 1908. But his family returned to Sicily soon after. Bonanno grew up to be an anti-fascist. In 1925, during Benito Mussolini's rise to power, Bonanno was forced to leave Italy and settle in Cuba (from where he later would return to the USA) after joining the mafia side and trying to prevent Mussolini from gaining control over Sicily,
In 1927, another gangster arrived from Sicily, Salvatore Maranzano, who had been sent over by Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the Italian man who dreamed of Mafia control overseas, to meet up with Bonanno and others with a mission to bring the American Mafia under Don Vito's control. Maranzano began a fight with the man who, until then, led Mafia activities in New York: Joe The Boss Masseria. The war between them became known as the Castellemarese War.
Inside their organizations, there were a group of young men who seized their opportunity to get to the top and had them both killed within five months of one another. The group included Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Before Maranzano died, however, he established a ruling body over Mafia operations, named The Commission. The Commission consisted of five mafia families, and the Bonanno Mafia family was one of them.
Bonanno took over what used to be mainly Maranzano's faction. His business interests included such diverse areas as clothing, cheese factories and funeral homes. It has been rumored that Bonanno invented a method where they could easily dispose of bodies without anyone knowing, this method was referred to as the double coffin, where they would put a body of someone who had been murdered just below the body of a funeral home client's loved one and that way, the Bonannos would also bury their enemies.
In the 1960s, Bonanno started making money in Arizona and California. However, his operations in New York were suffering, and this, along with the fact that some other Mafia bosses were getting uncomfortable with Bonanno's increasing hunger for power, led eventually to repercusions. Bonanno invested in gambling, with Lansky, in Cuba and opened other businesses in Canada. During this time, the other bosses began thinking that Bonanno was trying to move in on their territories.
After the death of Joseph Profaci, a very good friend of Bonanno and leader of the Profaci crime family, Joe Maglicco became boss of the Profaci faction. Bonanno then tried to talk Maglicco into ordering the deaths of such other important gangsters as Carlo Gambino, Thomas Luchesse and Sam Giancana. Maglicco gave an order to Joe Colombo to carry out these killings, but Colombo betrayed him, revealing the murder plans to the other members of The Commission.
The Commission then wanted an explanation from both Maglicco and Bonanno, but Bonanno refused to explain. Maglicco was very ill by then, so The Commission let him off easy, letting him pay a fine of 50,000 dollars and ordering him to retire from active criminal life. One month later, Maglicco had died of high blood pressure.
Members of The Commission had hoped that their act of letting Maglicco off easy would attract Bonanno to come forward. This was especially true of Giancana, who had tried hard to have Bonanno killed, but was unaware that he too was on The Commission's hit list. But, because many of the members of The Commission had come up with Bonanno and knew him since he was a young kid, they were reluctant to kill him without an explanation coming from his side first. They wanted to talk to him, give him a second chance.
In 1964, Bonanno and his lawyer were kidnapped by his own enforcer, Mike Zaffarino. Bonanno was held captive for 19 days in New York, after which he agreed to retire, give The Commission the Bonanno family's assets, which amounted to 2 billion dollars a year, and move to another country.
Bonanno complied and moved to Haiti, but in 1965, his son Salvatore suffered an attempt against his life. Bonanno realized the attempt had been ordered by the man who took over for him in the United States, Paul Sciacca, and soon he began to retaliate, beginning what became known as The Banana War. This split the Bonanno crime family into two sides, those who supported Joe Bonanno and those who supported Sciacca. Bonanno was proving to be too strong for Sciacca and The Commission realized that. However, Bonanno suffered a heart attack which made him retire for good, ending the banana war.
In 1983, he attempted to redeem himself in his ghost-written autobiography A Man of Honor but ended up suing the publisher of the paperback edition for showing him on the cover looking like "a cheap gangster". Some internal Mafia secrets were revealed in the book. He was asked by a jury to elaborate to them about what appeared in print, but he refused, and once again went to jail, serving a short sentence.
Throughout his life, he was never convicted of a serious crime. He was once fined $450 and was jailed for terms of 8 and 14 months for contempt of court for refusing to answer questions but that was it.