WILMINGTON — For the last 60 years or so, the streets of Wilmington’s Little Italy have looked quite similar in the middle of each June. The Italian Festival brings food, music and carnival rides and games to thousands of visitors, but that was all missing in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It all returned this year, and patrons and volunteers alike were happy that the sights, sounds and smells were back. To them, it was akin to seeing an old friend who had been out of the country for a few years.
“It’s good to have this opportunity, especially with people you don’t see all that much, maybe once or twice a year. But they all get drawn to this one communal thing. It’s nice to see friendly faces,” said Alexander Jones of Wilmington, who sipped an adult beverage as he waited for friends to arrive on June 14. He said he usually attends one or two nights per year.
“When I was a kid, it was mostly for the rides. It’s gotten more into grabbing a beer and a funnel cake, and enjoying the atmosphere,” he said.
Two sisters and St. Anthony of Padua parishioners were there to work, but neither minded being put into service for their parish. The Italian Festival and St. Anthony’s are an integral part of their lives.
“This is our church. We were baptized, school, married here, and would do anything to help them,” Marguerite Argelander said. “Missed it big time, but we just went through a weird two years, so I understand.”
Her sister, Maria Panella, was working at the funnel cake stand. She said the night before had been quite crowded, with a line of people waiting for the fried dough treat. She surveyed the scene on Tuesday, a few minutes after the gates opened.
“It doesn’t look super-crowded, but at the same time, there’s lines to get in, and there are lines for food. But it’s not packed like we used to have,” Panella said.
The sisters reminisced about the attractions that the Italian Festival once offered, which included fireworks and some crazy stunts, including having people walk along a highwire or shot out of a cannon along Dupont Street. Those things have been gone for several years.
“It’s unfortunate because that was something we remembered,” Panella said.
Barbara Owens was sitting in the courtyard between the church and school on a bench in the shade. She likes to see friends and people-watch.
“I used to sit here and have a cannoli and a cappuccino. Then I’d people watch and get up and go home and be happy as a lark,” she said.
The setup has changed over the years, she said, but that is something she can get used to.
“I’m happy to have it back, absolutely. I’m going to try to get my grandkids to come. I’d just love to have them come just to see them,” she said.
Another visitor, Laura Leone, said she usually attends every year. She said the 2022 version appeared to be smaller and more contained, “but everything’s beautiful. I’m happy to see people I haven’t seen in a long time, like my sister here.”
Argelander and Panella remembered the festival of their youth, which was a small parish carnival with fewer attractions than it has now. It was mostly contained between the school, rectory and church. They know how important the Italian Festival is to St. Anthony’s church and school, which are the main benefactors.
“It is absolutely a part of my life, and churches are hurting now. It’s more important now than ever,” Panella said.
The final parish carnival of the year is Summer Fest at Holy Family in Newark. It runs from July 13-17. Admission is free. For more information, go to www.holyfamilynewark.org.
All photos by Mike Lang.