The History of the Houston Italian Festival – Festa Italiana!
With about 15 booths made with colorful roofs covering folding tables filled with an array of Italian pastries, foods homemade by Italian club members, and Italian wines, Festa Italiana launched its humble beginning. It was 1978. The wine flowed, Italian music played and the aroma of Italian food filled the air. Today, Festa Italiana is one of the largest ethnic festivals in the city – an event that attracts thousands of Houstonians! Growth has been a 32-year dedication to the commitment Houston Italians made to themselves to maintain their cultural heritage, and to their hometown to be active participants in Houston’s development as a major city.
Move forward to the year 1990. It was time to grow. Moving from its original location behind the Sacred Heart Hall off Airline to Saint Anne’s Church on Westheimer meant more space, a greater audience potential and a bigger challenge. To entertain the larger audience, Festa Italiana expanded to 25 booths, added the favorite Italian bowling game of Bocce Ball, and presented Italian performers and bands from the Houston area, Chicago and New York City. Getting into the spirit of the Festa, owners of Italian restaurants began participating with their own food booths serving authentic and irresistible recipes they brought to this country or inherited from their Italian families. The city liked the “Italian thing,” and success was as sweet as the dolci being served. The Houstonians of Italian descent liked the cultural benefits they could personally give back to the city with proceeds raised by the Festa.
Festa Italiana has always been a “family” affair in more ways than one. Many of the booths were operated by members of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations of Greater Houston, Inc. (Italian Federation). The Italian Federation was the umbrella organization for the 23 Houston-area Italian clubs. Each club maintains its own identity, mission and membership, but joined together to create the Federation and to build the Italian Cultural and Community Center. The Festa became the main fundraising event of the year to support the Federation’s mission to promote the Italian culture and heritage, to sponsor social events and activities, and to perform works of charity. Today the Federation is made up of members-at-large rather than just clubs and their members. The clubs retain their affiliation and continue to make and serve the wonderful Italian cuisine the public seeks at this annual event.
Italian regional foods, particularly Sicilian, were prepared and cooked by Italians and served with all the flavor and flourish that is pure Italian style. Italian business owners provided food and service at no cost, and the children of the various club founders worked relentlessly setting up, building, managing and promoting Festa Italiana. Proceeds from the Festa Italiana support the Italian Cultural and Community Center, the Italian language school, scholarships, and many cultural events presented for the public each year.
In 1992, Festa Italiana was a sanctioned event for the Houston Chapter of the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Festa Italiana had now been recognized as a significant cultural event in the city.
As its popularity grew, the expansion of Festa continued. As Houston’s largest ethnic festival, it was time to move to the streets of downtown. The year was 1993. The Festa was located around the reflection pool of City Hall, in Tranquility Park and on the terrace of the city library, taking over three city blocks and four streets. Many of Houston’s top Italian restaurateurs served their distinctive Italian fares, a children’s area was added, and three entertainment stages entertained people with music and dance. Films of the many regions and businesses in Italy were shown in The Video Center, and booths featuring jewelry, artists and sculptures dotted the landscape. Downtown was alive with Italian music, style, art and people. In 1996, Festa Italiana left its downtown location and set up its celebration in Velvet Park off of Buffalo Speedway. It was an ideal location with oak trees lining the streets and open spaces that were perfect for a festival. When this location succumbed to Houston’s growth and development, Festa Italiana returned downtown in 1999, where it continued to attract thousands and became bigger, better and even more Italian than its originators could have imagined.
The national tragedy of September 11, 2001 and a substantial rainout in 2002 left the Festa’s future in doubt. There was no event in 2003 but in 2004, the flame was rekindled. Festa Italiana was moved to a new venue where weather is of little concern. The Farm & Ranch Club provided a pavilion with over 40,000 square feet under cover. Festa Italiana returned to its long tradition of its affiliate clubs and their members making all of the wonderful foods that Houstonians love — pizza, pasta, stuffed artichokes, sfingi (sfeen-gee), faccia de vecchia (fachya day vay-kia), Italian sausage, meatball sandwiches, cannoli and Italian cookies. Added to its traditional events and booths was an Italian Auto Show and many new activities and rides for children.
The year for change was 2009, when the festival started a new tradition…on the grounds of the University of St. Thomas. The move brought it back into the heart of Houston with a brand new look and feel.