Festitalia – An Evolution of Italian Celebration in Hamilton

Posted on: August 20, 2012

It was in 1974 when Frank Raso was serving as President of the Sons of Italy Trieste in Hamilton, when he received a call from the then Manager of the Eaton's store, Roy Walker. "Frank", he said, "I was given your name by the Vice Consul of Italy, Dr. Barolo". Frank listened, "My name is Roy Walker from Eaton's. I have just returned from a business trip in Italy…I want to meet with you to see if we can collaborate with the Italian community to promote Italian culture".

"After their trip to Italy", Frank recalls, "Eaton's fell in love with everything Italian"; the clothes, the merchandise, the music, everything. They probably had some help from Lady Eaton herself as Frank recalls meeting her at her home in Toronto; "she loved Italian culture". Soon enough Frank Raso suggested a committee be formed with 10 individuals from the Sons of Italy and 10 from Eaton's. The 10 day event was to occur in October, 1975 and Eaton's was paying for everything up to $30,000. Frank, along with his friends, Peter Cicchi and Nick Zaffiro, started to organize an event, the likes and scale of which had never been seen before. It was called, "The Italian Affair". "We had a 40 mile bicycle race, fashion show, musicians direct from Italy, something was going on every day inside of Eaton's and all around Hamilton".

Festitalia was born in 1976 following the great success of the Italian Affair, and its first chair was, of course, Mr. Frank Raso. Frank surrounded himself with leaders in the community, Italians and non-Italians who shared the same love for the culture. Among the earliest Board members were television and media personality, Emilio Mascia, Sam M. Cino and Frank Attardo along with former Mayor of Hamilton, Bob Morrow, Spectator Editor, Gord Bullock and Conductor, Boris Brott.

Festitalia has grown as a major annual event in Hamilton during the entire month of September. One of Mr. Raso's best memories of Festitalia was when they recruited over 200 members from the Opera House in Rome, including stage hands, set workers, performers and orchestra, for a Hamilton performance of La Boehme.

La Boehme, was such a hit that the then Mayor of Hamilton, Jack McDonald invited Sam M. Cino, during his term as Festitalia Chair in 1978/79, to chair a steering Committee that founded Opera Hamilton.

It was during Frank Attardo's term as Chair in 1980/81 that the Miss Festitalia scholarship was started, as well as the publication of the first Festitalia magazine, the regional food day and open air Mass at Gage Park celebrated by Cardinal Carpino from the Vatican. It was also during this time that an internationally recognized bicycle race was held in downtown Hamilton, as well as the Italian Piazza in Gore Park and a high end fashion show complete with motorcycle cops and live Bengal tigers.

As Festitalia chairperson in 1986 and 1987, Dominic Rappazzo is most proud of the ceremonial chairperson kick off at the Tiger Cat Labour Day Game and the Festitalia Regatta in Hamilton Harbour (with the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club). Also during this time, the ever popular Vino and Amore was born, occupying two nights at the Hamilton Armouries on James Street North.

In 1994/95, during Ezio Settimi's term as Chair, a special Mass was inaugurated at the Cathedral of Christ the King to honour grandparents who were 75 years of age or older. Today, the Festitalia Mass continues to be the heart and spirit of the Festival.

The inclusivity of Festitalia was apparent in 2002/2003 when then Chair Ron Corsini introduced the motto, "Festitalia Welcomes the World" and invited other cultural organizations to share in the Italian culture. It was at this time that The Honorable Lincoln Alexander was invited to be Festitalia's Honorary Chair.

During Mary Romeo's term as Chair in 2004/2005, Festitalia partnered with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boris Brott Festival and ChamberWorks in a series of concerts of Italian music known as Musica Italia. It was also during this time that Festitalia held a screening of the film "Perlasca, the Courage of a Just Man", raising $98,000 to be shared by St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation and the Human Rights Museum.

Joe Baiardo's most memorable experience during his term as Chair in 2007 was the introduction of Festitalia to the Good Shepherd Centre regular hot meal program guests. Joe recalls that "board members assisted in serving over 300 individuals in need of a meal, to great Italian food and music". Joe also fondly recalled one patron saying, "I wish it was Festitalia EVERYDAY!"

More recently, Festitalia has appealed to a newer and younger generation of Italian Canadians wanting to share the richness of the Italian culture with the whole community. It was Matt Moccio, during his term as Chair in 2010 that coined the phrase, "Festitalia is 35 years old and getting younger".

As you can see from this year's lineup of events, while the month long festival continues to appeal to the older generation, it is packed with activities for their children and their children's children, with and without Italian ancestry. After 37 years of celebration, Festitalia continues to be rich in diversity; both in events and in participation and will continue to be so for many years to come.