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Milwaukee's Festa Italiana Turns 35

Lakefront festival celebrates all things Italian

Jul. 18, 2012
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Before Festa Italiana emerged as the largest Italian-American cultural celebration in the nation, the festival was founded as a solution of sorts. During the 1950s, the city of Milwaukee formulated a plan of urban renewal that led to the displacement of families, destruction of churches and schools, and the eventual cultural demise of the neighborhood known as Little Italy. A group of reunited neighbors and community leaders from the Third Ward agreed to combine the city's smaller Italian street festivals to create an all-inclusive celebration. In 1978, Festa Italiana debuted at the Henry W. Maier Festival Park, becoming the first ethnic heritage festival to celebrate on the Summerfest grounds. Decades later, Festa Italiana is still a popular destination for a good meal and a great time.

'It's Food. It's Family. It's Tradizione.'

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once described life as a "combination of magic and pasta." To be fair, the incomparable director, best known for his 1963 masterpiece 8 1/2, was probably attempting to express the life-affirming comfort he derived from consuming a delicious plate of pasta. Since its inception, Festa Italiana has hosted some of Milwaukee's best Italian restaurants and delicatessens, allowing attendees to indulge in delectable classics like gnocchi, lasagna, pasta al pesto, tortellini and carbonara.

But as much as Festa Italiana encourages dining, the festival also celebrates the art of Italian cuisine. Nowhere is this appreciation more evident than at the Cucina Showcase. Featuring wine tastings ($20 per person), cooking demonstrations and a cannoli-eating competition, the Cucina Showcase includes appearances from celebrity chef Nick Stellino and "Cooking with Nonna" Web series host Rossella Rago.

It is almost inconceivable that another entertainer could ever possess the profound talent, effortless swagger and lovable, booze-bag charm of Frank Sinatra, but Festa Italiana's eclectic entertainment lineup promises some Rat Pack-worthy performances from Australian crooner Alfio, doo-wop masters The Bronx Wanderers and big band throwbacks Louis Prima Jr. Band and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Singer/songwriter Sam Llanas of the BoDeans, Chicago-based rock band Ides of March and burgeoning country star Charissa Mrowka will provide contemporary sounds, while Nashville's Old Dominion and festival headliner Phil Vassar will take to the Spiked Island Adult Lemonade Launch Party Stage on Sunday evening to perform some of their country hits. The Festa Italiana Bartolotta fireworks spectacular begins at 10:15 p.m. each night of the festival.

Before heading over to the Italian Idol Karaoke Contest, Festa bocce tournament or Juneau Park Paddleboat Lagoon for a gondola ride, guests should consider visiting one of the historical and cultural exhibitions on display at this year's festival. Located on the north end of the grounds, the Culture Tent features historical reproductions of ancient Rome, including dioramas of Mount Vesuvius and the Colosseum. The "Pompeii Sacred Art" exhibit, situated on the southeast end of the park, is "a tribute to Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church," and the adjoining "Vintage Italian Photo" exhibit is comprised of an extensive collection of Milwaukee street scenes, family portraits, wedding pictures and military photographs.

Housed in the same area, the Milwaukee County Historical Society exhibition "Faith, Family, and Festa: Milwaukee's Italians" provides some fascinating and thoughtful perspectives on Milwaukee's early Italians. Divided into four sections, the exhibit explores the "reasons and circumstances" that prompted Italian-Americans to immigrate to the United States, reveals the "trades and occupations of immigrating Italians" and details the religious, economic and "recreational societies of Milwaukee's Italian immigrants," explains Michael Reuter, the Historical Society's curator of objects. These exhibitions will remain on display through 8 p.m. July 22.

Festa Italiana runs July 19-22. For a complete entertainment schedule, visit www.festaitaliana

Emily Patti writes about food and culture for the
Shepherd Express.

For more A&E coverage, visit expressmilwaukee.com.


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