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Food, Fun, Family: Italian Festival Welcomed In Return To Heritage Port

Photo by Scott McCloskey A large lunchtime crowd turned out for the 38th annual Undo’s Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival in Wheeling Friday.

WHEELING — The scissors in Dewey Guida’s hand sliced through the ribbon held in front of him Friday afternoon. Michele Fabbro stood beside the 2021 Italian-American of the Year with a beaming smile. She knew how important Guida’s simple act was.

Snipping that ribbon meant that, after two years away, the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival was back.

“It was just awesome,” Fabbro, the festival’s president, said. “We’re just so glad to be back, and that made us realize that, yes, we’re really here.”

Fabbro wasn’t the only person at Wheeling’s Heritage Port on Friday that was happy for the festival’s return. Soon after that official kickoff, the port’s pathway was packed with patrons eager to get a taste of Italian heritage. They all had missed the festival during its COVID-19-induced hiatus in 2020 and wanted to get back to an event that has been a Wheeling tradition since 1983.

Tony Benedetto was at that 1983 festival, volunteering by selling raffle tickets and souvenirs. He has been to every festival since. Born in Wheeling and now living in Colerain, Ohio, Benedetto said this weekend is an opportunity for people to link up with friends they might not see at any other time of the year.

To have that taken away, even if just for a year, was no fun, he said.

“You miss it,” he said. “It’s a good gathering event. Families come out of town and plan their summers around this weekend. That first year you miss out, you’re just glad that it’s come back.”

The festival’s return was evident even before reaching Heritage Port. The aroma of funnel cakes and sausage sandwiches wafted through the air blocks away. At the festival site, longtime favorites like the Sons of Italy sausage sandwiches and TJ’s Jovanni sandwich were out for sale. Bakers laid out trays of cannoli and other pastries as patrons walked back and forth taking in the atmosphere.

“All this great food, everything smells wonderful,” Jay Salva said. “It’s my second time down here today. I like that it’s down here by the waterfront. It’s beautiful, and this festival just brings tons of people down here.”

The patrons aren’t the only group of people that make the festival what it is. Festival Vice-President Marilyn Wehrheim lauded the numerous volunteers who help keep the event rolling. Students from Steubenville Central Catholic and John Marshall high schools lent a hand, along with the Italian-American Culture Club from Steubenville.

“If it weren’t for these people, we really wouldn’t have a festival,” Wehrheim said. “My brother comes all the time from Kansas and just moved to Virginia. He made the trip and is here to volunteer and help us out.”

That work was appreciated by people like Robert Altmeyer, who had plenty of family with him as he walked through the festival. He called last year’s hiatus a “bummer,” because his family looks at the festival as a staple of their summer.

“We make sure we don’t go on vacation during the Italian Festival,” he said. “We come down here one or two days. We have our children and our five grandchildren here. It’s as good now as it ever was.”

Preparing for this year’s festival was no easy task, Fabbro said. The festival committee didn’t decide to hold the event until April, so they had to squeeze nearly a year’s worth of planning into just a few months.

Yet the final product is one the committee can be proud of, and one that people from throughout the Ohio Valley will be able to enjoy this weekend.

“When you stand at the end of the midway and look down and see all those people,” she said, “then you know all that work was worth it.”

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