Wheeling Italian Festival: Celebration of All Ethnicities, and Students
Folks in Wheeling are ramping up for the annual Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival. It’s one of the largest Italian Festivals in the country, but it’s not all cannoli and spaghetti. Organizers have worked to make ethnicities from across the region feel welcome in their celebration of heritage.
About thirty years ago some folks from Wheeling went to West Virginia’s first Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg (which still is occurs every Labor Day Weekend) and decided that they needed to start an Italian Festival in the Northern Panhandle, too.
Bob Gaudio, who served on the festival’s board of directors for 12 years and was the Festival chairman for six of those years, is the festival’s honoree this year—the Ohio Valley’s Italian American of the Year.
“Coal mines were the reason that my grandfather came to the upper Ohio Valley,” Gaudio said, “They came from Italy which at that time was very impoverished—the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries—and they came to work and be a part of this nation.”
Gaudio explained there’s one area of the festival, dubbed ‘Little Italy,’ where there’s an abundance of Italian foods, but the rest of the party is full of Greek and classic American foods, drink, 100 vendors, and three stages featuring musical acts from around the region and the country.
While the food and events and fireworks are the main reasons the festival has become one of the largest of its kind in the country, pulling some 150,000 people each year, Gaudio said the real focus of the festival is the scholarships they hand out to community students.
He said over the course of 32 years, almost $300,000 has been given to area college students. High school students of any ethnic background apply over the course of their senior year for one of the 14 thousand-dollar individual grants meant for college books and tuition wherever their studies take them.
The 32nd Wheeling Italian Heritage Festival kicks off Friday evening at the Wheeling Heritage Port along the Ohio River and continues until Sunday evening.