By Pete Kennedy
John Lacca remembers growing up in South Philadelphia, marching in the Columbus Day Parade down Broad Street, and walking through the lively Ninth Street Italian Market festival, “watching these crazy guys climb to the top of the grease pole.”
And he remembers Italy winning the World Cup in 1982.
“I was a youngster at that point, but I always had a picture in my mind of all the Italians in America celebrating Italy winning the World Cup,” he said. “That left an impression on me.”
In 2006, when the Italian team began gaining steam on its way to another World Cup win, Lacca saw an opportunity. A banker by day, Lacca also ran a sports apparel business with his brothers-in-law, wholesaling and retailing Flyers, Eagles and Phillies gear. He knew how well the home team apparel sold during winning seasons, so he stocked up on Italian soccer items, and Tutto Italiano Novelty & Apparel was born.
These days, in addition to the soccer jerseys, Tutto Italiano sells clothing, jewelry and other items. John’s wife, Joanne, handles most of the business operations. The Laccas, who live in Blue Bell, Montgomery County, stay busy during the spring and fall festival seasons, setting up shop at more than a dozen Italian heritage festivals. John is a board member of the St. Anthony Society of Southwest Philadelphia and Ciao Delco, which organizes the Rose Tree Festival each year.
If you’ve been to an Italian festival in the Delaware Valley in the past few years and purchased an Italian-flag key chain, apron or jacket, you’ve probably met John or Joanne.
Their sons, John John, 16, and Joey, 13, recently helped them set up an online storefront at www.tuttoitalianogifts.com, and Lacca hopes to increase their wholesale business with local Italian markets.
So far, though, festivals have driven their sales. The number and scale of Italian festivals have increased in recent years, and the Laccas are riding the wave, working as many of them as they can. The happy atmosphere at the events nudges revelers to visit their table and purchase, for example, a “Mommy’s Little Meatball” onesie or a three-cloth map, which depicts Italy, Calabria and Abruzzo.
“The product is kind of an impulse item and a priced-right item,” he said. ”You’re at the festival, you’ve had a couple
glasses of vino, talking to your friends and listening to Italian music, and you want to show your pride and your heritage.”
Joanne notes they’ve also built a reputation for using top-quality materials that last a long time and don’t shrink or tear. Tank tops and V-necks are popular items, she said.
John picked up his entrepreneurial skills as a teenager. In the days before cable and internet, Benny Lacca, his father, installed every antenna in Philadelphia, so the story goes. As a teenager, John was managing his father’s electronics business.
“I got the book smarts from St. Joe’s Prep and Drexel, and I got the street smarts from my father, on Broad Street in South Philly,” John said.
“He didn’t watch ‘The Brady Brunch,’ like I did,” Joanne said.
The couple met when they were 17, at a traffic light in Overbrook, West Philadelphia. He and his friends pulled up to a red light next to a car full of her and her friends. Joanne’s girlfriend’s car had a St. Joe’s Prep bumper sticker, because her brothers went there.
“Who do you know who goes to St. Joes?” John called out.
They celebrated their 20th anniversary last August.