The movie opens in 1960 with Lorenzo Anello's (Robert De Niro) son Calogero (Lillo Brancato) witnessing a murder committed by the local Mafia boss, Sonny (Chazz Palminteri). When Calogero chooses to keep quiet when questioned by police officers, Sonny takes a liking to him. Calogero starts visiting Sonny and his posse almost every day in the bar downstairs, much to the dismay of his father, a hard-working bus driver struggling to make ends meet. Eight years later, in 1968, Calogero (now played by Lillo Brancato Jr.) has grown into a young man. He will eventually have to make the choice between his two mentors. He also pursues an interracial relationship with a Black girl named Jane Williams (Taral Hicks), and he has to cope with this while being in the company of racist friends who coincidentally attack the girl's brother and his friends, and who later plan to raid a Black neighborhood (Harlem, New York).
The film contains several violent scenes, including a savage beating of a biker gang by the Mafia, and Calogero's friends' tragically botched incursion into the Black neighborhood.
A Bronx Tale was filmed in three New York City neighborhoods. Though set entirely in the Bronx, only one of these locations was actually in that borough. The Fordham neighborhood in which Calogero lives was actually filmed in Astoria, Queens; the black neighborhood said to be on and around Webster Avenue was actually filmed at East 15th Street and Gravesend Neck Road in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn; finally, the scene set on the Bronx's City Island was actually filmed in that location.
Palminteri adapted the screenplay from his one-man show of the same name. The show had successful runs in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway. Palminteri would not sell the rights to his story unless he could write the screenplay and was guaranteed the role of Sonny. At one point he was offered one million dollars, but refused because his conditions were not met. Later, De Niro saw the show and approached Palminteri. He said he knew about Palminteri refusing to sell the rights. For the rights he told Palminteri he would act in the movie and meet Palminteri's conditions if he could direct. De Niro said he was good to his word with only a handshake from Palminteri.
Palminteri based the character of Calogero on himself; his real first name is Calogero. The Lucchese Crime Family mobster Louis Inglese a.k.a. "Gigi The Whale" was the inspiration for "Jo-Jo The Whale" in the film.