After nearly half a century, St. Anthony’s Italian Festival is still a Wilmington tradition, drawing thousands of people to celebrate the rich Italian culture and heritage.
The festival was born in 1975, and started out relatively small on the grounds of the St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. This year, the festival began Monday, June 13, and is expected to attract over 60,000 guests during its eight-day run. The festival is known as the biggest annual celebration in Wilmington.
“In the region, we are right at the top in terms of our size and our scope. We’re talking about 60,000 or more people attending,” said Anthony Albence, who is part of the festival coordinating team. “We are one of the largest Italian-American festivals, really, certainly in the region and really in the country, one of the larger ones as well.”
Like any festival, the event provides a fusion of Italian cuisine, music, art, and vendors.
Guests should “expect a lot of great food, a lot of great music, entertainment. We have spaces for dancing and cultural offerings,” he said. “We have an area called El Mercato, which has a lot of imported items, home items, and decor items from Italy.”
As visitors wander along the small streets of Wilmington’s Little Italy, vendors line up to offer guests a taste of some of the region’s most popular Italian cuisines. Featured restaurants include Luigi and Giovanni, Capri Gelato, and Trattoria Di Capoli.
Many experience the flavor of Italy by sipping on one of the country’s traditional cocktails, the Bellini.
“We have a variety of bars with specialty drinks as well. We have a significant presence of stateside vodka,” Albence said. “We have a Bellini bar staffed by parish volunteers, which features the traditional Bellini drink.”
Not only is the festival flavorful for adults, but also enjoyable for children, featuring kiddy rides geared towards younger kids and a full selection of Midway rides and games.
While spreading cultural awareness is important to the organizers, religious faith is also an important aspect of the festival.
“It’s also a spiritual celebration as well,” Albence said. “So it’s a spiritual element, certainly that’s closely tied to and kind of imbued throughout the entire festival. And really a focus point of it is also the spiritual activities because we even scheduled the event around the Feast of Saint Anthony.”
The festival culminates with the feast day mass full of readings and music in Italian, followed by the procession of saints, which Albence describes as a “very traditional element you would see in the old world in Italy.”
As attendance has expanded over the years, the Italian festival invites everyone, whether they are Italian or not, religious or not, to join in the experience.
“Not everyone is certainly of Italian descent, but maybe most people are. But it really kind of builds the community. That’s kind of the beauty of it all,” he said. “It certainly celebrates our culture and heritage. We welcome everyone of all backgrounds.”
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