There is one giant-sized detail many local residents do not realize while visiting the Granddaddy of all festivals staged on Wheeling’s riverfront despite the fact that it has been the lone focus since 1982.
The annual Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival exists only to provide scholarships to students in East Ohio and West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. That was the reason why founders Anthony Zambito, Vincent Colaianni, Anthony Iannarelli, and Benny Battistelli donated $5,000 each to start the annual three-day festival, and it remains the primary motivation for each and every volunteer.
Fourteen scholarships have been awarded once again this year to graduated high school students from Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Belmont, and Jefferson counties. Each honoree receives $1,000, and this year’s group will be recognized on the main stage Saturday afternoon.
“The main reason everyone does what they do for the Italian Festival is the scholarships that are distributed to the local students,” said Marian Grubor, the president of the Italian Festival. “That’s why we have been able to award thousands of dollars in scholarships for the past 33 years.
“It’s all about adding to the chance for continued education for our local students,” she continued. “Everyone knows how the cost of a college education has increased over the years, so this is our way to pass on the love of learning to several families in the Upper Ohio Valley each and every year.”
“That’s the most important part of the Italian Festival,” said Ron Castellucci, the chair of the Italian Festival board of directors. “That’s why we all do what we do, but that’s also the one part of the festival that a lot of people still do not realize. Without our sponsors and without all of the people who come to downtown Wheeling during those three days we couldn’t accomplish what we have for more than three decades.”
Those attending this year’s Italian Festival will have the opportunity for the first time to contribute to the organization’s scholarship fund. Festival volunteers will collect the donations all three days.
“The cost of a college education isn’t the only thing that has increased over the years,” Grubor explained. “Inflation has impacted the price of everything we do connected to the festival, so this year those who come to the event will have a chance to donate to the Italian Festival’s scholarship fund.
“The one statistic everyone talks about is how many people come to downtown Wheeling for the Italian Festival every year, especially if we have great weather all three days,” she said. “If every single person contributes a buck, it would give us so much more for the scholarships, and it would allow us to possibly expand the number of awards we distribute each year.”
This year’s Italian Festival will be very familiar to those returning to the event, but there will be a few subtle changes, according to Grubor. For example, the menu inside the Little Italy will offer Chicken Parmesan sandwiches, made-to-order Pasta Alfredo, and Italian sausages prepared on a grill.
“But most things about the Italian Festival have stayed the same through the years because why try to fix something that’s not broken,” Grubor said. “It’s taken a lot of trial and error through the three-plus decades, but when it comes to the food that we prepared in the Little Italy area, we do feel as if it’s a good thing to change the menu every couple of years.”
The bocce and corn hole tournaments will return this year as will the more than 100 vendors that will fill the Heritage Port area, 70 of which will feature all kinds of different food and beverages.
“We do our best to have a little bit of everything that’s available because we know it’s one of the many things people look forward to each year,” Grubor explained. “We have filled all of the space that’s available to us, so the people who come to see us will be able to find something they would like to eat and drink.”
Live entertainment will fill two stages during the three days, most of whom are entertainers that reside in the Upper Ohio Valley.
“The first couple of years I was involved, I booked several regional acts, but as a musician in this valley I know how talented our local musicians are, so I changed the direction,” Castellucci said. “Now the majority of the entertainment we have at the Italian Festival features local bands and entertainers.
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“I like the fact that we now put a pretty big spotlight on our local musicians,” he continued. “They put in a lot of hard work, and they deserve it, in my opinion, and I’m sure they will not disappoint because they haven’t for the past six years.”
The annual Italian Festival would not take place if it were not for the volunteers, and the current leadership hopes members of younger generations will decide to become involved in what truly is a 12-month planning process.
“Every year we have a lot of people giving many hours to make this festival happen, and it’s about giving back to our community for all of us,” she said. “During the festival itself we have more than 100 volunteers taking care of everything from organizing the entertainment on our two stages to preparing the food in the cultural area. Without people stepping up to help us, this festival could not happen the way it does year after year.
“We do need more young people in the Upper Ohio Valley to get involved with the festival because many members of our board have been working on the festival for many years, but we’re not getting any younger,” she continued. “From the very beginning it’s been like a big family from throughout the valley that has come together to make these three days happen every July. I would like to see more of the younger people get involved, to join our family so we can continue providing the Italian Festival for many more years to come.”
“We do need many more young people from our valley to step up and give back to a community event that pays forward,” Castellucci said. “We need people who are great at event planning and who know how to go about the marketing aspect.”
Castellucci said the final week of preparations was a hectic one with the annual Kick-Off Dinner taking place Wednesday evening at the McLure Hotel in downtown Wheeling, the setup of the festival headquarters in the Sims Tower on Main Street, and the building of the stages and the beer garden on the corner of 12th and Water streets.
“At this point we are as ready as we can be,” said Castellucci. “We take a lot of steps throughout the year to get to this point, and during the final week it’s the same thing. Step by step.
“Once the festival begins, the biggest challenge is the coordination of everything that is taking place all at the same time,” he said. “We have to make sure that we have the right staffing in place so we can be sure that we have the right amount of volunteers in the right places. It’s take great personnel to put on a party like this.”
Castellucci followed former chair Robert Gaudio’s six years of leadership, and that, too, has proven to be a tough task.
“The shoes I’m still trying to fill are enormous, but what has helped me is that I worked with Bob for several years, so I was able to see how he went about doing this job,” Castellucci explained. “He left this festival in great shape so it could move forward for many more years, and all I can is hope that I can come close to doing the kind of job he did during his six years as the chairman of the Italian Festival.”
The 2015 Italian-American of the Year is Dr. Antonio S. Licata, a retired general surgeon who practiced in Hancock County for nearly 30 years. He will be honored on the main stage at noon today.