The theme for this year’s St. Anthony’s Italian Festival in Wilmington is simply benvenuti: Welcome back, after two years of the world torn asunder by the pandemic.
The festival – expected to draw tens of thousands people to St. Anthony of Padua Church on June 12-19 – succeeds because of extensive planning and the commitment of people to the parish, its leaders say. It is one of a more than a dozen recurring Italian festivals in the greater Delaware Valley.
John DalGesso is credited with turning St. Anthony’s small carnival and spaghetti dinner into a huge event that at times featured car giveaways and tightrope acts. “There wasn’t one day in the year that I didn’t spend some time on the festival,” he recalled of his leadership stint, from 1974 to 1991.
DalGesso is a lifelong parishioner who once lived in the old rectory across the street from St. Anthony’s and also holds the festival dear because that’s where he met his wife, Annette.
There’s definitely a friendliness at the festival: volunteer Anne D’Ascoli met her husband there, too.
Anthony Albence, a parish trustee and fourth-generation parishioner, has served on the festival committee for 15 years, following decades as a festival-goer. When asked why the festival has succeeded for so long, he credits the legacy of the parish, which marks its 100th anniversary in 2024.
“People may move, and their families may worship elsewhere, but they always return for those milestone events, like weddings, funerals and holidays,” he said. “St. Anthony’s was founded for Italian heritage, not with a geographic boundary.”
DalGesso and Albence agreed that cooperative relationships form another critical asset.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of a good relationship with your local government,” Albence said. “Understanding all the requirements can seem overwhelming, but it’s a partnership. They’ll want to work with you,” particularly in appreciation of how much money festival-goers spend.
Good relationships are also needed with vendors, since some sign up for multiyear commitments, DalGesso said. Others must be approached months ahead to get on their calendars, Albence said, exemplifying with the few companies able to provide the fencing the festival has used since 2008.
St. Anthony’s fenced in the grounds to “ensure that it is a safe, family-focused environment,” Albence said. “It was challenging, but patrons have embraced it.”
DalGesso realized the importance of the family atmosphere decades ago when he asked volunteers to build 450 picnic tables. The idea was that adults would sit, eat and drink while their children enjoyed the rides and games – and the food and drink. And they did.
Such cordial relationships must continue with volunteers. Hundreds are needed during the festival, and they fulfill important duties during preparation. “Never, ever turn anyone’s offer down,” DalGesso said.
“Make everyone feel important. And involve the whole community.” That last comment includes local businesses impacted by all the festival-goers who want to park close by, rather than take shuttles.
“Success breeds success,” he said. “The more popular you are, the more people want to help out.”
Hundreds of volunteers are needed each year to create AbbeyFest, a Christian music festival at Daylesford Abbey, in Paoli, Pa., said Abbot Emeritus Richard Antonucci.
The festival also features prayer groups, Mass and a candlelight procession of the Blessed Sacrament. A big draw for the thousands of attendees is headliner Matt Maher. “His songs are like little sermons,” Antonucci said. “He’s using music like the parables of Jesus 2,000 years ago.”
The Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival in Hammonton, N.J., has endured as America’s longest-running Italian festival because of faith and focus.
“Our faith gives us the energy and passion to sponsor this old-world tradition,” said Frank Italiano, vice president of the Our from father to son,” the nonprofit says on www.mountcarmelsociety.org. “On occasion, as needs require, membership is increased to include extended family members or devout Catholics sponsored by a member in good standing.”
“The focus of the festival is the Procession of images, on July 16, throughout the streets of Hammonton,” he said. “In addition to the Feast Day, the weeklong festival draws tens of thousands of people with a focus on great food, good fun, entertainment and our faith.”
At St. Anthony’s, DalGesso prided himself on being open about finances with volunteers (with changes he led, it went from grossing $28,000 to $1.3 million) and ensuring they had fun as well.
He liked to book headliners on Mondays to encourage people to return. Perfect example: Bobby Rydell brought his parents another night after he sang at the festival.
DalGesso said he and Father Roberto Balducelli researched other festivals when they supersized St. Anthony’s. ‘There is no man in the city of Wilmington and some would say in the world who has done more with his own hands and heart to further a festival than Father Roberto Balducelli,” Marjorie M. McNinch wrote in “Festivals.”
DalGesso and Albence have been very willing to share knowledge and resources, like those tables, with people planning other festivals. “I helped everyone who wanted help,” DalGesso said.
While the festival once relied on nonne to make classic Italian fare, the current size means most items are made by vendors. This year’s menu isn’t finalized, but Albence hopes for twists on tradition. “We’re encouraging them to be creative.” Info will be updated on https://stanthonysfestival.com.
The festival, which benefits St. Anthony of Padua Grade School, ends with a Feast Day Mass of St. Anthony, in Italian, and the festival hopes the traditional Procession of Saints will follow. The church, a national historic landmark, will also be open for tours.
Around the church will be five major food areas, 10 bars, three stages for live entertainment and a marketplace of Italian goods and devotional items. “We’ve changed it over the years, but the current setup is the best for efficiency and staffing,” Albence said.
Celebrate your Italian pride and heritage at these area festivals
Festa in Onore di San Francesco di Paola
June, Ambler, Pa. By the St. Francis Society.
Sept. 2-6, Courthouse Square, Scranton, Pa.
Italian American Heritage Festival
June 5, Rose Tree Park, Media, Pa. By the Coalition of Italian American Organizations of Delaware County. “Divertimento per tutta la famiglia,” it says on ciaodelco.org. Plus bocce tournament, an Italian car exhibit, live music, games, entertainment and – of course – Italian food.
Bristol, Pa. By the Bristol Lions Club.
Knights of Columbus
Italian Festival Historic Smithville, N.J.
Lancaster Festa Italia
May 21-29, Lancaster, Pa.
Mercer County Italian American Festival
Old Time Italian Festival
Wildwood, N.J. By the Sons of Italy.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival
July 11-16, Hammonton, N.J.
America’s longest-running Italian festival.
Padre Pio Festival
Sept. 17-18, Holland, Pa. By St. Bede the Venerable Parish and the Knights of Columbus.
Padre Pio Festival
St. Padre Pio Parish, Vineland, N.J.
facebook.com/events/saint-padre-pioparish/padre-pio-festival/239635714750179 and pppnj.org.
St. Anthony’s Italian Festival
June 12-19, St. Anthony of Padua Church, Wilmington.
St. Anthony’s Italian Heritage Festival
Sept. 10, Glassboro, N.J. By Axe & Arrow Microbrewery.
St. Mary of the Lakes Carnival
May 16-21. St. Mary of the Lakes School,
Highway 70, Medford, N.J.
St. Nicholas of Tolentine Italian Festival
Oct. 2, Philadelphia.
South Jersey Wine and Food Festival
Mays Landing, N.J.
South Ninth Street Italian Market Festival
May 21-22, South Ninth Street Italian Market, Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia’s largest block party” at the nation’s oldest outdoor market.
Southern Delaware Wine, Food & Music Festival
Dates included when given on festival websites.