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Festa food keeps crowds coming

Festa Italia offers Italian staples in event limited by COVID-19 pandemic.
Festa Italiana 2021
Volunteers will prepare and serve thousands of takeout meals Sunday and Monday for Festa Italiana. (Ian Kaufman, TBNewswatch)

THUNDER BAY – The pandemic may have nixed the usual entertainment and fireworks at this year’s Festa Italiana, but its culinary offerings remained more than enough to bring thousands to the Italian Cultural Centre on Sunday.

The event continues Monday, offering takeout orders from noon to 8 p.m., with a small seating area available.

There’s no replacing the social aspect of the event, acknowledged Festival chairman Benny Melchiorre.

It’s the human interactions that have made Festa resonate for 31 years now, he said, enough that some who attended as children return to Thunder Bay years later just to attend or volunteer.

“We’re missing the social part of the Festa, people coming down to see their friends, making new friends. To have 10,000 people in the parking lot for the fireworks, it’s a good feeling – we miss that.”

Provincial COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed to allow larger events in mid-July, but certainty on that move didn’t come soon enough to organize a major event weeks later.

“We would have loved to go back to the full-blown Festa, but of course that takes a lot of planning – you can’t just wake up in the morning and say, we’re going to have a Festa,” he said. “But we’re really happy with the turnout and look forward to doing a full [event] next year.”

That will be welcomed by attendee Lorenzo, who has been coming for around seven years.

“It’s always a blast,” he said. “During COVID, I miss having the whole Festa – we used to spend hours out here.”

Still, like many others Sunday, he didn’t miss the opportunity to pick up favourites like gnocchi meatballs or crostoli.

Roughly 5,000 people showed up to enjoy the take-away food at last year’s event. The usual version draws roughly 10,000 visits per day, organizers estimate.

Melchiorre expressed gratitude to the community for decades of support, and has said he expects the event to come back in a big way next year.

Proceeds from the event support the Italian Cultural Centre. The organization also donates significant amounts to other local charities, Melchiorre said.

All Festa attendees are asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines.