WHEELING - The area has changed a great deal since 1983, but one constant is that thousands continue to make their way to downtown Wheeling every July for the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival.
The weekend of the 30th-annual festival got off to a cheerful start during the Wednesday kickoff dinner at the McLure Hotel, where 2012 Italian-American of the Year Robert Contraguerro told attendees to enjoy the festivities from Friday through Sunday at Heritage Port.
"Dream big, work hard and you can be anything you want to be," he advised those at the dinner.
A Wheeling native, Contraguerro is the owner of Panhandle Cleaning and Restoration. He said both sets of his grandparents immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy, so gaining recognition for his heritage is very special for him. Contraguerro started his cleaning business in Wheeling in 1977.
Festival Chairman Robert Gaudio thanked those who help organize the event, noting all they really get for their work is some satisfaction and a T-shirt.
"You are the heart and soul of this festival," he said.
Awarded $1,000 scholarships as part of the festival this year were: Bethany Tinstman of Buckeye Local High School, Megan Theaker of St. Clairsville High School, Megan Salatino of Brooke High School, Rebecca Goyde of Wheeling Park High School, Morgan Pelley of Bishop Donahue High School, Jalena Marshall of Wheeling Park High School, Jillian Laslo of Shadyside High School, Lance Workman of John Marshall High School, Joshua Marosi of Brooke High School, Casey Wiltshire of Buckeye Local High School, Michael Mastromichalis of Weir High School, Kaylee LaPosta of Weir High School, Nicole Cheek of the West Virginia Northern Community College Culinary Arts program and Jennifer Ferguson of Oak Glen High School.
In 1983, festival founders Vincent Colaianni, Anthony Zambito Sr., Benny Battistelli and Anthony Iannarelli Sr. each invested $5,000 to fund the first festival, originally held on Market Street in Wheeling. The event has grown since then and whether you come for the music, the pizza, the pasta or the bocce tournament, this year's festival is sure to have something for everyone.
More than 50 hours of free musical and cultural entertainment await those who attend the 2012 festival. Two stages of continuous live entertainment at the port will feature local and regional talent, while strolling musicians and dancers will entertain at various Water Street locations through Sunday.
Headliners include the Jaggerz, Ray Massa's Eurorhythms, Elio Saccio and White Collar Criminals on Friday; the Fabulous Bender Boys, Avanti, Ronnie Fiorentino, the Joseph Sisters, U.S. Kids and Matt Schafer on Saturday; and the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference All-Star Band, Allegro Dance Co., the New View Trio and Moreno Fruzetti on Sunday.
Special attractions this year include the Little Italy Plaza at the north end of Water Street, an Italian wine bar, folk dancing, arts and crafts, fireworks from the Suspension Bridge on Saturday night, a Catholic Mass on Sunday morning and amusement rides and games.
Little Italy will feature live Italian music, specialty Italian food and wines, cultural activities, a pasta-making demonstration, Italian crafts and bocce tournaments all weekend long.
The festival will continue its wristband program in conjunction with the Wheeling Police Department's ongoing efforts to curb underage drinking. The bands can be purchased daily by those over 21 at locations near beer and wine booths, while a band good for the entire weekend comes at a reduced price. Proceeds from the wristband sales are used to defray the cost of festival security.