Ybor City’s little Italy

The tastes and sounds of Italy will be close to home this weekend when The Italian Club of Tampa hosts La Festa Italiana, an event celebrating the culture of Italy.

The event takes place Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Centennial Park in Ybor City and will feature a variety of activities, entertainment and food. Cost of admission is $3, which includes access to all exhibits and performances. All proceeds benefit The Italian Club Restoration Fund.

The Italian Club of Tampa (L’Unione Italiana) has been in existence for more than 100 years. In 1912, a “clubhouse” was built to symbolize the unity of the Italian immigrants in Ybor City.

“The Italian Club acted as a sort of sorority or fraternity to the early Italian immigrants of Tampa,” Nicole Capitano, assistant coordinator for this year’s festival, said. “It’s where our ancestors gathered and socialized and really built a sense of community.”

Through the years, interest in the club declined and by the early 1990s, membership in the club was almost zero. The building, which had once served as a symbol of unity and a landmark for immigrants, was practically in ruins, Capitano said.

“The building was condemned and there were pigeons and homeless people living there. Seeing this sparked an interest in old members, as well as the new generation of members, to regenerate the club and save the building,” Capitano said.

So in turn, La Festa Italiana began to serve as the club’s primary fund-raiser for the restoration of the building. Now in its sixth year, the festival is expected to draw about 15,000 visitors.

“It used to be a small deal, but over the years we’ve gained sponsors, like Sorrento( an Italian cheese company), along with credibility, so the number of people attending has grown every year,” Capitano said.

For the festival, the Italian Club has booked a number of international performers, including Michael Amante, deemed the “new American tenor,” and Bill Acosta, a well known comedian. There will be cultural presentations, including a grape-stomping exhibition and “La Cucina Italiana,” an Italian cooking demonstration, as well as a “15 Years of Ferrari” exhibit.

Something new for this year’s celebration is the use of the club’s building to house some of the activities: a bingo session, and Italian dance performances and lessons. Starting at 2:30 p.., on the building’s third floor a slideshow of “Tampa Cigar Workers: A Pictorial History,” will be presented in part by the USF Florida Studies Center. Afterwards the authors of the book, Robert P. Ingalls and Louis A. Perez Jr., will host a discussion and book signing.

“As the event has grown, it has become important to use the building and to show where the money we’ve raised has been put to use,” Capitano said.

Outside in Centennial Park , in “restaurant row,” more than 30 restaurants from the area, including Romano’s Macaroni Grill and Carrabba’s Italian Grill, will serve food throughout the day. Each restaurant will have its own table or booth and serve selected items from its menu. Food is not included with admission and must be bought with tickets that are available at the event.

“For the whole day, I would estimate that a couple would need about $15 to eat well,” Capitano said. “The restaurants don’t serve entire plates, but the samples are generous and the cost is reduced.”

Capitano said she thinks the hope of the Italian Club is that visitors gain an appreciation and respect for Italian culture as a whole, and especially for the immigrants who first came to Tampa.

“By having La Festa Italiana, we are able to share something with the community by teaching about our history and celebrating our culture,” Capitano said.

Contact Rebecca Markleyat oraclefeatures@yahoo.com