In Roman times, the fortified settlements of Castelseprio and the port of Angera were of high importance in the region. The House of Visconti conquered the region in the 13th century and completely destroyed Castelseprio. The House of Visconti used the land for agricultural purposes and as part of the territories of Milan. During this Visconti rule, Varese became prosperous due to high levels of trade in the region, but remained small. Prior to his appointment as Duke, Francesco III d'Este, Duke of Modena lived in the region during the 18th century. While the unification of Italy was initiating, Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi attempted to install anti-Austrians in Varese; in response to this, the Austrians attempted to invade in 1859, and a battle occurred in Varese. Umberto Bossi was born in 1941 near Varese, who believed that the region of Lombardy should have a degree of independence; in 1986, he founded the Lombard League which became a component of the Lega Nord (North League).
The agriculture of this sub-Alpine region is based on livestock farming and the economy relies on tourism, with many people commuting daily to Milan. There are local cheeses made from goat's milk and local meat dishes, and there are freshwater fish caught in the many lakes. Other local products are a local variety of asparagus, chestnuts, berries and honey, and grapes grown locally are made into traditional red and white wines.