Jay King of Fridley is a third-generation Italian-American, on his mom’s side of the family.

When he joined the planning committee for the Festa Italiana, a relatively new festival that celebrates Italian heritage in Minnesota, “it was like coming home,” he said. In fact, he found out that one committee member is a distant cousin, he said.

The festival that’s happening this weekend in Shoreview is for everyone, though, and it’s jam-packed with events reflecting that Italian-Americans in Minnesota have made their mark on everything from railroads to food to music.

This is the third festa, a celebration that began in 2011 and is returning after a one-year hiatus last summer. It’s also the first time it will take place in Shoreview, after being held at Harriet Island in St. Paul.

The festival will run from Friday through Sunday, with a wide variety of attractions, said marketing director Jessica Dowell.

In “heritage” tents, U.S. census data, photos, relics and other historical materials will be on view. People can trace their lineage to Italy or in Minnesota. A volunteer will be on hand to help people with genealogical research, Dowell said. Festival-goers can also submit posters illustrating their family histories. Posters will be judged for prizes.

Presenters will speak on topics from home winemaking to Italian card games. Also in the mix are “Wheels of Italy,” a display of Italian cars and motorcycles from Ducati Owners of Minneapolis; bocce ball tournaments; a spaghetti-eating contest, and rides in a gondola.

Music will also be a major part of the festival. Edward “Eddie” Bova, executive director for the festival’s nonprofit organization, said of featured singer Russ Loniello, “It’s almost scary how much he looks like Dean Martin” in his classic tuxedo.

Other performers include opera singer Nancy Sanchelli-Guertin; the I Cantatori men’s chorus, and DJ Gary Larue. Poet Emilio DeGrazia will read some of his works, and strolling musicians, traditional dancers and jugglers will also be on hand.

A “bambini” tent will have various child-friendly activities, and an area dubbed Parliamo Italiano will offer basic Italian language lessons and travel tips.

A popular part of the “festa” is the Roman Catholic mass and procession. It’s reminiscent of a tradition in which various towns in Italy hold “festas” honoring their individual patron saints, said John Andreozzi, the festa’s board president. Townspeople parade a statue of their patron saint down the streets, pinning money to it. Fireworks, games and entertainment follow. Especially in the past, “it was the social event of the year,” Andreozzi said, adding, “That’s what our “festa” is modeled after,” in some ways.

Also, all kinds of fare from Italian restaurants will be available. That includes cannoli, lasagna, Juicy Luigi, shrimp scampi-on-a-stick, wood-fired pizza, gelato, and more.

Italians in Minnesota

Andreozzi will talk about Italians in Minnesota. He has authored two books about Italians in Minnesota, Milwaukee and Cumberland, Wis., and his hometown, Lackawanna, N.Y.

Today, 2.3 percent of Minnesota’s population is of Italian descent, according to U.S. Census data from 2010, he said. That amounts to about 124,000 people.

In the late 1800s, the Iron Range saw an influx of Italian immigrants who came for mining jobs.

In the metro area, at one time four areas known as Little Italy could be found in St. Paul and Minneapolis. In northeast Minneapolis, Italian Americans later moved to Columbia Heights, St. Anthony, Fridley and other cities. A similar pattern took place across the Mississippi River, Andreozzi said.

In one of the heritage tents at this weekend’s festival, a map will show where Italians lived in northeast Minneapolis, house by house, between 1900 and 1930. People can also look at U.S. Census data listing Italian families in the Twin Cities in 1930. Separately, a map of Italy will pinpoint these families’ origins. “If you know your roots, you know who you are and where you’re going,” Andreozzi said.

The display also has artifacts, such as railroad equipment. It alludes to the fact that many Italian Americans worked on the railroad’s section gangs. Every spring, hundreds of Italians could be seen at St. Paul railroad stations, saying their farewells. They’d be gone for months. It was a rough living.

Blending in

Andreozzi will also talk about assimilation, how identity and culture has changed through the years. In the early 20th century, the attitude was “100 percent Americanism,” he said; immigrants were supposed to “melt in” with the American population. Andreozzi himself never learned Italian at home even though his parents were fluent. They “thought people would look down on us,” he added.

That view changed after World War II. People took pride in their traditions. Around 200 Italian organizations could be found statewide, a number now down to 13.

All in all, the festival is a chance to “see people from the old neighborhood. You have to experience it to see that chemistry,” said Bova, who got involved when Pat Mancini of Mancini’s Char House & Lounge in St. Paul asked him to compile a list of Italian eateries around the state. It was Mancini’s vision to create the festival, he said. “Hopefully, people come and have fun and learn something about the Italian culture, too.”

 

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at annaprattjournalist@gmail.com.