La Festa Italiana: A History of Proud Heritage

One of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s most cherished traditions is La Festa Italiana, the four-day celebration of culture, cuisine and music that brings together people of all ethnic backgrounds from near and far.

La Festa Italiana was initiated in 1976 when communities across the country were celebrating our nation’s 200th birthday.

“Our Italian-American community wanted to do something to contribute to the celebration. We thought of a festival as a gift that could keep on giving,” recalled Robert W. Pettinato, who at the time was a Lackawanna County Commissioner.

Mr. Pettinato enlisted colleagues, friends and community leaders to help organize the event. The local Italian parishes, businesses and fraternal organizations were invited to participate.

Courthouse Square in downtown Scranton was chosen as the site because it is the city’s equivalent of a “piazza,” the plaza of a typical town in Italy.

“We conceived the festival to maintain the Italian traditions,” explained the late Pat Fricchione, Sr., who served as Vendor Co-Chairman and President.  “In Italy, the piazza is the center of the community. That’s where they have festivals to honor the saints, and it’s the place where the citizens gather to discuss politics and socialize. Artists display their works while musicians entertain.”

The late Sam Cali, who served as either board president or festival chairman for many years, noted that the inaugural festival was scheduled for a Sunday over the Columbus Day weekend.

“The night before, there was a fire at the former Hilton Hotel on North Washington venue,” he said. “We met with Mayor Eugene Peters at City Hall at 5 a.m. to decide what to do. The next morning, the building was still smoldering, there were fire equipment and water in the street, but we still had the festival.”

About 40 vendors set up along the North Washington Avenue side of the square, and an estimated crowd of 20,000 patronized the event.

Over the next few years it was not fire but the fickle nature of October weather that toyed with the fortunes of the festival. “I remember one year we were keeping our eyes on the thermometer on the facade of the old American Auto store on the corner (the present site of Farley’s restaurant). It went down to 18 degrees,” Mr. Cali said.

Episodes like that convinced the organizers that La Festa needed a change of season, so in 1981 the event was moved to the Labor Day weekend and has been held at that time ever since.

La Festa has become a holiday tradition that satisfies everyone’s appetite for a good time with good friends. Vendors now occupy all four sides of Courthouse Square, offering a wide variety of Italian cuisine. Ah, the food! Italian cooking is a vibrant expression of the good life. In fact, the cooking of the Italian peninsula was the first full developed cuisine in Europe.

And no trip to La Festa is complete without a stop at the cappuccino tent, which provides the relaxing atmosphere of an outdoor café in Italy.

Another revered highlight of the festival is a Mass on Sunday morning in nearby St. Peter’s Cathedral. The Mass is celebrated in the Italian language. Traditionally the Bishop of Scranton presides at the liturgy.

And what would a party be without music? At La Festa there is plenty of it – four days and nights of free, continuous live entertainment on four stages to suit anyone’s tastes. The featured performer is an accomplished Italian vocalist. The tradition started at the first festival with Al Martino and has continued with names like Bobby Arvon, Nelson Sardelli, The Duprees, June Valli – the “Lucky Strike Girl,” Moreno Fruzzetti, Emil Stucchio and The Classics, The Bronx Wanderers, Italian Soprano Christine Fontanelli, Italian Tenor Christopher Macchio, Nikki Rasmus, local Sinatra impersonator, Chris DiMattio and a host of others.  Acts like The POETS, The Four Aces, the Italian Sounds, Hi-Lites, Gene Dempsey Orchestra, Paul LaBelle’s Exact Change, King Henry and the Showmen, the Four Aces, New York’s Los Vega, New Jersey’s The Cameo’s, Ray Massa’s Eurorhythms, and the Italian American authentic Paci Band, local dance troupes and the jazz bands from Marywood University and The University of Scranton are among the festival favorites.

There’s a stage dedicated to smaller groups in the area playing modern music and a stage filled with acts for children.  There is a heritage tent and displays featuring national and local individuals who are well accomplished in their career and are of Italian descent.   La Festa also prides itself on showcasing the Italian heritage through folk dance performances by the Ballet Theatre of Scranton.

It’s no wonder that people come from throughout Pennsylvania and neighboring states to enjoy La Festa. Some estimate that nearly 150,000 people will jam the Square over the weekend.

“We get great satisfaction seeing all those people, young and old, from all over who keep coming back year after year,” said the late Patrick F. Guido, long-time Co-Chair of Vendor Committee. “That’s why we do it.”

A number of local non-profit and fraternal groups that set up stands raise money for local charities.  Over the years, well over $1 million has been distributed to needy groups.

The La Festa Committee takes the same approach. There is no admission charge for visitors, but each vendor is assessed a fee to participate. These and available sponsorships are used to cover operating expenses, with surplus funds going to various local charities.

The festival organizers, a relatively small group, are dedicated volunteers who work for months to plan and stage the event.

“It is a tribute to the Italian American community that for so many years we have been able to have this festival for our friends and neighbors,” Mr. Pettinato said. “The committee works very hard and everybody associated with the festival is very proud to host it.”

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