Stroll down the streets of Clarksburg during the annual West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival.
One step out of the car in downtown Clarksburg on any given Labor Day weekend is a treat for the senses—the faint reverberation of an accordion combined with a ringing tambourine, romantic voices speaking in Italian, and the overwhelming aroma of delicious street food. All signs point to what festivalgoers anticipate year in and year out—a celebration of Italian heritage that’s one of the largest in the nation.
This year, headlining acts like Justin Guarini, a contestant from the first season of American Idol, will join festival favorites like Rudy Amato, Amici, The Davisson Brothers Band, and the very first Italian Festival queen herself, “Regina Maria I,” Mary Francis Beto Smith. Other activities include cultural events in the historic Waldamore building, bocce ball tournaments, carnival games, face painting, live entertainment all day, and, of course, eating. Beloved local food merchants like Oliverio’s Ristorante, Demus Italian Specialty Foods, Marino Brothers, and Minard’s Spaghetti Inn bring their businesses downtown making the masses "mangia" the area’s most succulent meatballs, the hottest fried peppers, and the freshest locally made sausage.
The West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival was born in 1979 when community members Sam Chico, the late Sam D'Annunzio, James LaRosa, Louis Spatafore, the late John Manchin, and the late Frank Iaquinta, along with Harrison County library director Merle Moore, created the three-day event to commemorate their Italian ancestry and Italian-American contributions to the nation and the state. It also became extremely important to preserve the traditions they held close, considering a whopping 11 percent of folks in North Central West Virginia claim Italian ancestry.
“The Festival is much more than a weekend of food and dancing,” says board member and Amici musician Stephen Pischner. “We’re being called to keep our heritage alive.” In that spirit, the festival is free to the public and organizers encourage everyone to come and experience Italian traditions like an outdoor Sunday morning Roman Catholic Mass on the main stage, the coronation of “Regina Maria XXXII,” Gabrielle Merandi, the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family, and dancing the “Tarantella” in the streets. In fact, generations of young Italian-Americans who grew up attending the festival feel that celebrating is a big part of who they are—young people like 22-year-old Francis Joseph Angotti of Clarksburg. “I believe the main draw for younger generations is the anticipation that we experience year after year,” he says. “For that weekend we can let loose, momentarily disregard our obligations, and enjoy being with family—that’s what it’s all about.”
But the festivities don’t end once the weekend is over. Plenty of events throughout the year keep the festival and its mission alive, like the annual Gala, the pasta cook-off, the amateur wine contest, and the golf tournament at Bridgeport Country Club. And if you’re not able to make it out to the festival this year, the entire weekend, from coronation to Sunday Mass, is broadcast live on WDTV.
Mark your calendars! Admission is free and paid parking is available throughout the city.