Festival Born of Tradition

WHEELING – A modest beginning is the hallmark of countless success stories, but there’s never been much about the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival that could be called modest.

In fact, what has become the country’s second largest Italian festival – behind only New York’s Feast of San Gennaro – sprang from a quartet of proud Italian-Americans who felt they had something to prove after visiting similar events in the area, according to festival Chairman Robert Gaudio.

“That’s how it was born – through jealousy, essentially,” he said.

Each of the four men, Benny Battistelli, Vince Colaianni, Anthony Zambito and Lou Salvatori, kicked in $5,000 of their own money to put together the inaugural Italian Festival in Wheeling in 1983, Gaudio said, before reaching out for help to organizations such as Follansbee’s Garibaldi Club and the Bellaire Sons of Italy throughout the Ohio Valley. According to news reports published at the time, more than 100,000 people visited that first festival, and it’s been a staple of the community ever since.

The familiar sights, sounds and smells of the Italian Festival will return Friday through Sunday when the event’s 28th installment kicks off at Heritage Port.

A Neighborhood Block Party

Even if only for a weekend, Gaudio said, Italian blood will run thick through the veins of the 175,000 or so people expected to attend this year, no matter what their ethnic background may be.

“When you’re on those festival grounds, you are an Italian,” said Gaudio. “It’s a big neighborhood block party.”

A neighborhood block party that, as it turns out, has produced quite a few stories that even faithful attendees of the festival may not be aware of. One of those took place in 2007, when the Italian Festival was celebrating its 25th anniversary.

In the early days, the festival “lost money hand over fist” in booking top-flight musical acts, said Gaudio. While organizers in recent years have become more frugal, he said they spared no expense for the big silver anniversary, signing up the likes of B.E. Taylor as well as a famous opera singer who came all the way from Australia to perform that year.

They also booked Julius LaRosa, a Brooklyn native whose singing career reached its peak in the 1950s. At 11 p.m. the night before LaRosa was to perform, Gaudio’s cell phone rang.

It was LaRosa, reporting that severe weather had all but shut down LaGuardia Airport and there was no way his flight was leaving the Big Apple that night. All was well, however – he and his wife were willing to brave the storm and make the drive. LaRosa’s accompanist, however, was not so accommodating and stayed behind.

“He doesn’t tell me this,” Gaudio said, recalling his surprise when LaRosa arrived in the Friendly City at 8 a.m. that Saturday. “I’ve got 11 and a half hours to find a piano player who’s able to sit down cold and play tracks for this guy.”

They found a suitable candidate at the last minute, a young man in his 20s who Gaudio said “saved the show.” However, the lack of time to rehearse with his impromptu accompanist meant LaRosa only could perform a portion of his repertoire, leaving about 30 minutes of time to fill.

“I made the executive decision – which I still regret today – to move the fireworks up to 9:30,” he said. “People called for the next month, I think.”

A Crucial Decision

For the event’s first 18 years, Market Street was the center of the action for the Italian Festival, essentially closing the downtown area to traffic during the three-day event. But at the turn of the century, that all changed when city officials approached festival organizers and asked them to consider a change of venue, to the brand-new Heritage Port.

At the time, there was precious little programming at the waterfront, and leaders knew they needed something to make a splash and put their big investment on the map. When then-Chairman John Pizzuti announced the decision to move the Italian Festival to Heritage Port in 2001 during a fundraising dinner around Christmas in 2000, Gaudio said the crowd was enthusiastic – but not in the way organizers had hoped.

“He was booed,” Gaudio recalled. “John was booed, because they don’t like change.”

Though nostalgia prompts some people to this day to tell Gaudio they prefer the days when the festival was held in the streets downtown, he believes it was an excellent decision that allowed the event to continue to grow.

“Down there, there’s plenty of room, and it’s beautiful,” he said. “It makes it easier on traffic flow, and on the police.”

Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce President Terry Sterling said that choice was a watershed moment in the event’s history, and agrees it “has proven over the years to be a very positive move.”

He added the influx of visitors to Wheeling for the festival each year represents “a significant impact” to the local economy with increased traffic in hotels, gas stations and other establishments.

The venue change also has created a ripple effect that reaches far beyond Italian Festival weekend. The past decade has seen several festivals added to the summer line-up at Heritage Port, including the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta, the Sternwheel Festival, the Ohio Valley Black Heritage Festival and BluesFest, just to name a few.

“The festivals that are down there now … all of those are there because of the success of the Italian Festival, and I know that because they’ve told me,” Gaudio said. “We showed folks … that you can use that venue and use it effectively.”

He also praised the city for allowing the Italian Festival and other events to use Heritage Port “virtually free of charge.”

A Labor of Love

The festival committee’s budget this year is about $175,000 – a sum Gaudio called “ridiculously small” for an event of the Italian Festival’s size. That amounts to spare change more than it cost to stage the inaugural festival in 1983.

Organizers, therefore, are constantly coming up with ways to cut costs. Over the years, those methods have included focusing on more local music acts and charging $1 to purchase a wristband enabling patrons to buy beer at the festival. Though a strained budget can make things difficult, Gaudio said the committee keeps at it each year because they enjoy it.

“It’s always a labor of love,” he said. “There’s so many dedicated adults and young people on this board, it’s hard not to love it.”

Gaudio said above all, the event promotes community and family, two elements at the forefront of Italian culture.

“People don’t talk to each other anymore,” he said. “(At the festival) people are actually standing on the street in each other’s faces, talking to each other … people that may be neighbors but haven’t seen each other in a year.”

As it has each year since 1987, the festival committee will award scholarships to area students. This year, a total of $13,500 will be given out – including 12 awards of $1,000 given to two students each from Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Jefferson and Belmont counties. Also, the $1,000 Michael Sinicopi Memorial Scholarship is awarded to a student pursuing a career in broadcast journalism.

This year, a new, $500 award has been added, and will be given each year to a student of West Virginia Northern Community College’s culinary arts program. Magan Whitecotton of Bellaire is the first recipient of the award, and she will be recognized along with all the other scholarship winners during a ceremony at the festival Saturday evening.

“This is something that is very important to us,” said Gaudio, who noted scholarship winners are not necessarily of Italian descent, but are those who are good students of good character who demonstrate a financial need.

“Italians serve their country, and their community, and we want to serve our kids,” he said.