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The 44th West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival is gearing up for a full line up of activities this Labor Day holiday weekend.
Since 1979, the colorful three day street festival has celebrated Italian culture and heritage in the Mountain State. In preparation for the event, blocks of streets are closed off to traffic to accommodate the thousands of visitors expected to pour into downtown Clarksburg over Labor Day weekend.
With one of the largest Italian American populations located in the north central part of West Virginia, it has been rated one of the “Top 100 Events in North America” including Canada and Mexico.
Festival board member Weege Vargo said the authentic Italian cuisine and entertainment draws people from across America.
“Well of course, one of the things that the Italian culture is most known for is their delicious food, so you will find numerous food vendors lining both sides of Main Street between 2nd and 5th Street,” Vargo said. “Another cultural thing we are very well known for is our music and our dancing.”
Vargo said there will be continuous entertainment on the main stage all three days of the festival.
“You can listen, you can dance, you can enjoy however you see fit,” Vargo said. “We do have a traditional closing each day of the festival with the band AMICI – an Italian band – and during that show people dance in the street doing the traditional tarantella and some of the other Italian dances.”
The royal court of Regina Maria – Regina meaning “Queen” and Maria the name of the first queen of Italy – is crowned during the opening ceremony. The festival culminates with a traditional festival ball with highlights that include an annual 5k run, and West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival Golf Tournament and a pasta cook off.
This year’s Regina Maria is Delaney Wells of Charleston who gets to wear a signature sequin-rich, brilliant red dress for the celebration.
“Like with the big crown, and like she’s known for having this huge dress. I remember seeing it when I was kid and seeing her on the float,” Wells said. “I mean it was just like this huge ball of red, but like, it’s so beautiful, and there’s a huge court that she has, oh my gosh, there’s so many young kids on the court. There’s a minor court, a junior court and then maids of honor. And actually, my cousin is a maid of honor this year.”
To be chosen as Regina Maria, Wells said she sent the festival board a letter outlining her Italian heritage, experience and interests.
“And then I had an interview with them. I had a Zoom call on Superbowl Sunday and each person on the board asked me different questions,” Wells said. “They asked me if I have any memories of the festival, what I love about being Italian, what I’m doing right now in school, what my goals are in the future, and the next day they emailed me back with a letter of congratulations.”
Vargo said the crowning of the queen marks the official start of the festival which continues through the weekend.
“On Friday, we start at noon with the coronation of Delaney, who will be Regina Maria the 44th. She will receive her crown from last year’s queen, and she will start her official reign, and she will stay in that position until she crowns the queen next year,” Vargo said.
After hearing she’d been chosen as Regina Maria, Wells immediately told her family and set about preparing for the event.
“They’re so excited. My mom went to the first one in 1979 when she was 12,” Wells said. “There’s a picture of my grandma braiding her hair, and she and I recreated it when I was 16, and we took a picture of her braiding my hair at the Italian Festival. I’ve been going there ever since I was a little kid. I think I only didn’t go because of COVID, and then I was at college, but then that was when the whole world was messed up so I couldn’t go.”
For her role as Regina Maria, Wells has to attend all the festival events, something she said she is looking forward to.
“I’ve probably said dancing with kids a million times, but that’s what it is, I really do dance in the streets with all the children and all the people attending,” she said.
Along with a pepper eating contest and Italian bocce ball games during the festival’s pasta cook-off people share compelling stories about their ancestors while enjoying excited chatter over food.
“I mean, maybe when I was younger, it was people who had come from Italy who were cooking food. But now it’s their children, grandchildren who are there,” Wells said. “Because there are so many people, I know one of the women who runs the event, her name is Rose Mazza, she was born in Italy. So I guess, like talking about the food, like it’s more than just your pizza that you get at takeout, or just a little more real and tasty. They have really good food there.”
On Saturday, Wells and her court will ride on the Queen’s float reigning over her court in the Grand Parade which will feature dignitaries like Clarksburg Mayor Jim Malfregeot and others.
Sunday’s events include a Catholic outdoor mass at 10 a.m.
“Whether you are Catholic or not, it is a very moving and rich ceremony and service, and people stand in the street and worship,” Vargo said.
Following the mass, the Allegro Dance Company will entertain the public with archived festival footage and performances by Mary Frances Beto Smith, Benjamin DeFazio, Chelsea Boyles, Brandon LeRoy, Marissa Bailey and AMICI.
The last day of the festival also marks Fritti Sunday, which starts at 8 a.m.
“Frittis are an Italian type of dessert, it’s dough just covered in sugar. They’re so good,” Wells said. “I know people from Clarksburg who knew about them growing up so they’ve been around forever. People love them, I mean, they sell out so quickly.”
Each year, the festival honors outstanding Americans with public awards and recognition. This year’s honorary Italian man of the year is Brad Smith from Marshall University.
Past recipients have included Govs. John D. Rockefeller and Cecil H. Underwood, Leland Byrd and Senior Status Judge Daniel L. McCarthy as well as A. James Manchin, uncle of current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.
Delaney Wells is a journalism major at the University of Kentucky and she interned this summer with the West Virginia Public Broadcasting newsroom.