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Annual Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival kicks off in Wheeling


The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — Whether they are seeking pasta, sausage, meatballs, wine, a bocce game, hours of free entertainment, a petting zoo or pony rides, visitors will find all this and much more at the 35th annual Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival, which begins at noon Friday at Heritage Port.

Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival intern Rosemary Ketchum, left, and Festival Coordinator Kim Smith work on final preparations for the 35th annual event.
(Photo by Casey Junkins)

Former Ohio State Sen. Lou Gentile knows how much patrons enjoy the three-day festival, but hopes those in attendance recognize that its primary goals are to promote education and a sense of community. Gentile will be honored as the 2017 Italian-American of the Year during the festival’s annual kickoff dinner, set for 6 p.m. today at the McLure Hotel in Wheeling.

“I am so honored and grateful,” Gentile, of Steubenville, said Tuesday. “I want this to be about our ancestors who overcame so many challenges when they got to this country. Their efforts and sacrifices through the years have made it possible for us to have better lives.”

Gentile said his grandfather, Luigi Gentile, “came here from Italy on a boat in the 1920s.”

“He worked so hard, but I’m sure he could have never imagined that his grandson would one day serve in the Ohio Senate,” Gentile said.

Gentile lost his bid for re-election in November. Although he does not rule out running for office again, he said he is enjoying life working in the private sector and spending time with his family.

“I am really humbled by this,” Gentile added. “So many Italian-Americans have similar stories.”

Another former Italian-American of the Year, Robert Gaudio of Wheeling, also served as festival chairman for 12 years. He said the primary goal of the event is to fund scholarships for several local students each year. He emphasized applicants need not be of Italian ancestry.


“We thank the residents of the Upper Ohio Valley for giving us so much support through the years,” Gaudio added. “It’s a great time, and it’s for a good cause.”

As for the event itself, Kim Smith, festival coordinator, said organizers expect as many as 150,000 people to attend the event at some point during the three days.

Many who attend the festival regularly realize how hot it can get. However, those playing bocce will get some relief this year, as Smith said the courts will be set up inside the air-conditioned WesBanco Arena.

There will also be pony rides and a petting zoo at the festival this year, she said. There will also be contests for the best homemade wine, meatballs and sauce.

“Everyone who comes is an honorary Italian for the weekend,” Smith added.

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