Festa Italiana! A Celebration of Connection

Anyone who’s attended Festa Italiana knows there’s a warm hospitality that sets this event apart. That joy of togetherness was sorely missed during the pandemic hiatus of 2020 but is back in full force this summer, with all the tasty foods, song and dance, carnival fun and family traditions we love.

The 42nd annual Festa Italiana will take place Aug. 6-8 on the grounds of Boylan High School, 4000 St. Francis Dr., Rockford.

“Festa will open at 5 p.m. Friday and at 7 p.m. on the main stage will pay homage to first responders and medical personnel in our community,” says Joy Parlapiano, a Festa board member who’s helped to make Festa happen for 20 years now. “Also, a Wall of Hearts on display in the Culture Tent will give everyone a chance to honor their special first responder.”

The delicious food sold at Festa, most of it made in local kitchens, is one reason the event attracts 8,000 to 10,000 people each year.

“We’ll have all the fan favorites plus a few new ones like tiramisu and some new cookies,” Parlapiano says.

Traditional savory favorites include Italian beef, sausage, pork chop and meatball sandwiches; arancini (small balls of rice stuffed with a savory filling, coated in breadcrumbs, and fried); roasted corn; toasted ravioli; pizza; pasta with homemade sugo (sauce); fried mozzarella and toasted zucchini.

Sweet-tooth pleasers include granita, cookies, cannoli, pastries and sfingi (small Italian donuts). Guests will wash it all down with beer, wine, pop, Italian cream soda or iced coffee.

Generations of family members work side-by-side to make and sell the food, says Parlapiano. Some volunteers begin their work many weeks ahead and use the Boylan High School kitchen during the days leading up to Festa.

“On Monday cookies are baked, on Tuesday sugo (sauce) is made, then comes set-up days for everything else before food begins moving into refrigerated trucks on the festival grounds on Friday.”

Many items are then fresh-cooked to order in vendor tents.

Entertainment is also a big part of Festa. The lineup ranges from traditional Italian singers like the Vince Chiarelli Band and Vince Amore to the Amici Italian Troupe of dancers and bands such as Dirt Road Rebelz, Sunset Strip, Too Hype Crew, Minimal, Karma Committee and Dirty Fishnet Stockings. Find the complete schedule and band bios on the Festa website.

Fun on the carnival midway is geared to all ages, toddler through adult, and will be provided by Wilson Family Show. Ride tickets are sold in two booths on the carnival field. Carnival games are $5 each, cash only. There’s also a Kids Craft area.

Since big kids like fun and games, too, a fourth bocce ball court has been added this year. This means about 50 men’s teams and 20 women’s teams can participate. There’s a $100 entry fee per team and cash prizes will be awarded to the top three teams in both men’s and women’s tournaments. Learn more and register to play at festaitalianarockford.com/bocce.

An outdoor mass will be led by Bishop David Malloy in the large rest tent on Sunday, Aug. 8, at 10 a.m., two hours before the festival re-opens. Golf cart rides from the parking lot to mass are available by calling Jay Villani, (815) 378-8120.

Festa wouldn’t be possible without the hundreds of volunteers who make it happen. Their camaraderie is part of the ambiance.

“The hospitality people feel during Festa comes from the deep family roots many of us experienced while growing up in Italian-American families,” says Parlapiano. “Festa is for everyone, not just Italians, but it’s a celebration of what we love about our ancestral culture.”

Profits from Festa Italiana support the scholarship fund of the Greater Rockford Italian American Association (GRIAA), which helps Italian/American students with tuition in parochial schools. To date, nearly $700,000 in scholarships have been awarded. GRIAA is a non-profit that promotes Italian culture through social events, charity, and educational activities.  

Daily general admission is $5 for ages 8 and up. Admission is free for children 7 and under and for military active-duty personnel and veterans. A Family Pack ticket costs $40 and includes four admission tickets, two ride wristbands and $20 in food and drink tickets – an $80 value. Family Pack tickets are sold on the website and at participating Kelley Williamson locations.

Festival hours are Friday, Aug. 6 from 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 7 from noon to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 8 from noon to 9 p.m.

Learn more at festaitalianarockford.com. ❚