It is festival season in Wheeling and one of the city’s favorites is back and better than ever. The Grecian Festival will begin on July 27 with plenty of activities for visitors to enjoy.
Food, Food and More Food!
Greek meals have always been one of the main attractions at this festival and with St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in charge, it surely will not disappoint.
“(My family and I) love to travel, but we are careful to never plan a trip over the dates of the Grecian Festival,” said Patty Papadimitriou-Dunlevy of the Divine Greek Orthodox Church.
“We work about 14 hours a day at the church each day over the four-day festival.” Dunlevy has been a part of creating the Grecian Festival practically her entire life.
“My father served as a cashier into his early 90s and you can find many of my extended family members helping in one way or another in different departments throughout the week.”
Dunlevy and her husband Ryan have been overseeing the Taverna at the festival for many years.
“The Taverna is connected to the gyro tent and serves many items such as Greek fries, Greek wings, chicken pita wraps, calamari and saganaki, which is flaming cheese,” said Dunlevy.
She says one of the most difficult aspects of working to maintain the festival is the weather.
“The humidity of summer and heat from the gyro machines, grills and 10 deep fryers is overwhelming at times, but we have some very dedicated volunteers who brave the conditions and come back daily to help.”
Despite the endless hours of planning, Dunlevy and the team behind the Grecian Festival always come through with some amazing food — both modern and traditional.
“I love introducing new menu items each year. This year the Taverna is offering a ‘Mezze’ appetizer of chopped gyro meat sautéed on the grill with peppers, onions and feta cheese and served with fried pita triangles,” said Dunlevy.
“Our Taverna team spends a lot of time during each festival coming up with and trying new foods we’d like to add to the menu. My daughter always thought we needed coffee at the festival, so with help from the other young adults, we opened the Kafenio booth last year that serves traditional Greek frappe and baklava cheesecake.”
Volunteers make the special vanilla honey drizzle and baklava crumbles in-house, which is topped over 2,000 pieces of cheesecake served at the event.
“We’re estimating it will take over 40 pounds of nuts to complete the task. Last year, because it was a new item and it was the first festival post-COVID-19 shutdowns, we had no idea what volume to prepare.”
The cheesecake was a hit, and Dunlevy ran out by noon on the festival’s first day last year.
“This year, we have a team in place to prep the cheesecake and hopefully keep the Kafenio consistently supplied,” said Dunlevy.
“We serve thousands of customers over the four days and as with any large event, there are countless details that need addressed before, during and after the festival.”
While specialty items go quickly, even the traditional tzatziki sauce needs extra attention at such events.
“Just filling the tiny condiment cups with tzatziki, onions and tomatoes for our famous gyros is a project because we fill over 18,000 of them,” said Dunlevy.
“A group of parishioners meet weekly to bake pastries and roll meatballs and grape leaves; again, a labor of love, but in the quantities needed, it takes many, many hours and extensive planning.”
Maria Kayafas, also a member of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, contributes to the festival’s success each year — especially the food.
“I am only involved with three aspects of the Greek Fest. I prepare the loukoumathes batter, which is something like doughnut holes with honey drizzled on them,” said Kayafas.
“I do this every morning for our Youth Tent. Then at 2 p.m. for three days of the week on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, I present a cooking demonstration in a baking demo called ‘Fun with Phyllo.’”
This year, Kayafas is sharing how to make kataifi, which is shredded phyllo dough with nuts and syrup.
“It’s actually dreamy tasting and easier to make than you might expect. We give out a free sample at the end and a copy of the recipe. It’s a lot of fun and we have many visitors that come back every year!”
Kayafas says the event is very relaxed with questions being encouraged.
“We learn how easy it is to reproduce these authentic Greek dishes they enjoy each year here at the festival right in their own kitchen.”
Dancing for the Crowd
While traditional food is always expected at cultural events, dancing is not always one of the main attractions. However, at the Grecian Festival, it is a long-standing event that many look forward to.
“Both of my children have been Agape dancers since they were in pre-school and I have to say that watching them perform is one of the highlights of the festival for me,” said Dunlevy.
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“My son, who was always on the more reserved and quiet side, has never balked at getting up and performing. It brings out another side of him and it’s truly heartwarming for me to watch.
The dancers at the Grecian Festival perform a wide variety of dances from many regions and islands of Greece. The children are taught from a very early age and at times perform in less than ideal conditions.
“I have countless photos of my kids over the years in their costumes, usually performing in the sweltering heat and their hair curly and damp with sweat, but always with smiles on their faces,” said Dunlevy.
“All of the kids that perform show such joy in their smiles and it’s wonderful to watch because their joy is infectious.”
Kayafas has been the dance instructor for their parish for 28 years, while her husband has been the festival director for the last 22 years.
“Being the dance teacher involves teaching over 60 dancers from ages three to 21 and working with seamstresses to recreate authentic traditional costumes,” said Kayafas.
“Ours are Cretan style. The best part is the annual fundraising and just loving up all these kids. We practice the entire month of July and end with the four-day festival, which every kid will tell you, is the highlight of their summer.”
The performances take place every night at 6 p.m., starting with the youngest and middle Agape aged group. At 7 p.m., the Evzone dancers perform and at 7:45 p.m. the senior dancers take over.
“They dance to a live Greek band called The Greek Company,” said Kayafas.
“The kids have so much ‘kefi,’ a Greek word for having a zeal and love for life and fun. As they dance, the energy is contagious and worth a trip out to see!”
A Celebration of Greek Faith and Community
A large, if not the largest, aspect of this celebration is the faith those hosting it has.
“We are all eager to share our Orthodox faith and our culture with our surrounding community. The proceeds help our Open Door program in which we feed the hungry twice a month and support other outreach programs,” said Kayafas.
“I must say that what gives our Greek culture its beauty is its strong foundation in Orthodox Christianity.”
Kayafas says it is not limited to just Greek Orthodox people and that there are endless aspects she enjoys about her faith.
“In many ways, Greek culture is closely tied to Orthodoxy, but one does not need to be Greek to be Orthodox. (I enjoy) hanging and venerating icons of Holy Orthodox saints all over the house and in our cars, praying before family meals and lots of time with family,” said Kayafas.
“But the very best part of our Greek culture is being exposed to our Orthodox Christian faith and making a real effort to live it. Learning about the lives of saints inspires the very young to the very old. The worship life of our parishioners is the central joy we get that fuels all we do as we try to live our best life.”
Dunlevy agrees that the church has been a central part of her and her family’s lives since she was born.
“I was baptized in and have attended St John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church my whole life,” said Dunlevy.
“My father was from Greece and my parents were married in this church and my husband, Ryan, and I were as well.”
Both Dunlevy and Kayafas deeply enjoy generations of their family all taking part in the same church and sharing memories there together.
“I love that my children have grown up in the Orthodox faith. We are a tight-knit community and we consider the parishioners our extended family.”
Throughout the years, both women share the same love for this event. With food, music and dancing being the main attraction, for them, it is the relationships they create along the way.
“One of my favorite aspects of the festival is the camaraderie with my fellow parishioners and volunteers that we have over those four days,” said Dunlevy.
“We are typically moving at a very fast pace filling orders most of the time, but still have a lot of fun together. We truly love interacting with the community and being positive and welcoming representatives of our church.”
Kayafas emphasizes that ‘kefi’ is indeed the main ingredient when it comes to the Grecian Festival.
“It’s all difficult, but our parishioners do it with much kefi. It’s a labor of love and Greek hospitality! We are a culture that loves to welcome guests and feed them as we share meaningful conversation and laughter,” said Kayafas.
“Overall, even though it’s so much work, my family and I truly look forward to the festival every year and celebrating our Greek heritage and Orthodox faith.”
The Grecian Festival will be hosted from July 27 through July 30 at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church on Chapline Street in Wheeling. For inquiries regarding the event, please call 304-233-0757 or visit grecianfest.com.
• With a background in journalism and being a true Wheeling native, Jessica Broverman was destined to work with Weelunk. She holds a degree in journalism with a minor in criminal justice and works with Williams Lea Tag as a legal proofreader. When she isn’t typing away for Weelunk or WLT, she is enjoying a coffee at one of her many favorite spots in Wheeling, spending time with friends, or having fun with her husband Zachary and their two cats, Proctor and Max.