According to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, in the Northern Panhandle, 7,000 people claim Italian as their sole ancestry and 12,000 people of multiple ancestry claim Italian as their primary heritage.
Chairman of the Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, Robert Gaudio, said in the early 1900s, many immigrants, including his grandfather came to West Virginia for manufacturing jobs.
“He immediately came to West Virginia because there were jobs available in the coal mines. He brought with him the heritage and culture of his homeland, which was Italy and that is a similar experience with everybody that is in the Northern Panhandle and North Central regions where coal was being pulled out of the ground. The Italian families have kept the Italian culture alive,” said Gaudio.
The festival began in downtown Wheeling in 1983 after some Italian families from the Northern Panhandle visited the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival in Clarksburg. They wanted to start a similar festival and invested their own money to help start the project.
Gaudio said Wheeling’s the second largest Italian Festival in the nation.
An emphasis on family life, education and religion are all aspects of the event. The festivities include a church service on Sunday.
“At 10 a.m. , we have a Roman Catholic mass in the open area down at the Heritage Port on the big stage and Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese celebrates the mass along with several other priests that he brings along with him. This year we may also have a bishop who is an Italian speaking bishop from Massachusetts to come celebrate with Bishop Bransfield,” said Gaudio.
Proceeds from the festival help support an annual college scholarship program for 14 students in the Northern Panhandle area. Since 1987, the festival has awarded more than $250,000 in scholarships.
Food is also an important part of the Italian culture. Gaudio said each year, festival committee members collect community recipes online and then publish then in a cookbook.
“The ingredient that is most important in the Italian food is the family sitting around the table enjoying it together. We feel that we want to share all of the great things about our lives as growing up in Italian American households and one of those obviously is recipes and it seems whenever we put a recipe book together everybody wants to share their favorite recipes for whatever,” said Gaudio.
The festival also has a section called “Little Italy” where festival goers can experience Italian music, dancing, crafts and even learn how to speak Italian.
Organizers are also developing a special section on the festival’s website, to help preserve Italian American history in the state .
“Our website is fairly new and what we are trying to do is compile family pictures from family members past so we can have a database of photos and information from generations past and all of those folks who made this festival possible along with their stories of course,” said Gaudio.
Bocce tournaments, games for children, wine tasting, and a visit from the Budweiser Clydesdales are all part of this year’s festivities. A fireworks show will also happen Saturday night.
The Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival begins at Noon Friday and runs through Sunday evening.
To learn more about the festival’s events click here.