Since 1983, the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Festival has been a late-July staple in Wheeling. Inspired by the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg,1 organizers hatched a plan to host an Italian fest in Wheeling. As a testament to their vision, and Wheelingite’s appreciation of a good party, the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Festival is still one of the hottest summer festivals in the area.
In the early days of the festival, it was held up on Market Street. Having the vendors, music, and guests sprawling down Market Street certainly contributed to the convivial nature of the event, but in 2001 the festival was relocated to the newly opened Heritage Port. This marks the beginning of the Italian Festival as most of us know it, and the new location has only contributed to its further success.
Many different moving parts come together to make up the festival: a slate of musical performances, traditional dancing, a bocce tournament, a car show, and of course the food. Specifically, the sausage sandwiches cooked up by the Sons of Italy Uguaglianza Lodge 754, located in Bellaire, Ohio.
Chartered in 1917, the Bellaire Lodge has been an integral part of the fabric of the Ohio Valley for over 100 years. Ordine Figli d’Italia,the Order Sons of Italy in America was established by Italian immigrants for Italian immigrants who needed assistance when coming to the United States.2 Lodges consolidated their resources to provide educational opportunities, assistance with the naturalization process, and other means of support.
These days, the Sons of Italy in Bellaire are able to focus their generous spirit on other worthy community causes. It’s often quoted that proceeds of their sales from the Italian Festival go to their college scholarship fund, and they do– but they also use the proceeds to support local sports teams, schools, churches, and other community groups. In addition, their well-maintained bocce court is the host site of a qualifying regional tournament for Special Olympics Bocce– winners will go on to compete at the state level.
Now, back to the sausage – It takes a village of volunteers to get ready for the Italian Fest. Volunteers cut buns, prepare the meat and stuff sausage casings, portion the sausage, cut the peppers and onions, and that’s even before they get to the festival. They start work on Tuesday the week of the festival and work tirelessly to ensure they are ready for the hungry crowds of the weekend.
The week of the festival, Sons of Italy in Bellaire receive daily bread deliveries. Volunteers gather around a long table in the Lodge to prepare buns for the weekend. The mood is cheerful yet focused, with “runners” buzzing around the table to make sure cut buns are picked up, and uncut buns are supplied.
Subscribe to Weelunk
The festive mood continues in the kitchen, where a dedicated group of men take “a ton and a half” of pork to make the sausage. The recipe is closely guarded; it has been passed down generations and members are sworn to secrecy. While the recipe may be responsible for some of the magic, the other half of the equation is the skill of the makers. Sausage making is a craft, where people and machinery must work together to fill delicate casings with the pork mixture. Improper handling can create an inconsistent product, or worse, cause a tear in the casing that can hinder the productivity of the morning.
Witnessing all of the hard work that goes into preparing the components of the sausage sandwiches, it’s easy to forget the essential second part of this whole thing–selling the sandwiches at the festival. Three shifts of 10 people staff the overwhelmingly popular stand to ensure everyone who wants a sausage sandwich gets one. “People come from all over- Parkersburg, Steubenville, out of state, to get a sandwich at the festival,” said Sons of Italy president Bill Ault.
Despite the imminent success of their efforts, Ault expresses some concern about the next generation of sausage-makers. “The median age of the Ohio Valley is getting older,” with younger folks often moving outside of the area. He’s not alone in this concern, this is a common refrain heard among practitioners of traditional craft and foodways in the area. Despite this very real concern, he remains optimistic. For now, they have dedicated volunteers and a hungry and appreciative public– a winning combination.
Try one of these famous sausage sandwiches for yourself, and check out all of the other great food vendors, at the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Festival this weekend. Opening ceremonies begin at noon on Friday, July 28 at Heritage Port, and the celebration will continue throughout the weekend. You can check out the full lineup for this year’s festival by visiting italyfest.org.
• Kate Wietor is currently studying Architectural History and Historic Preservation at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. She spent one glorious year in Wheeling serving as the 2021-22 AmeriCorps member at Wheeling Heritage. Since moving back to Virginia, she’s still looking for an antique store that rivals Sibs.