By GUY D’ASTOLFO
The Greater Youngstown Italian Festival will open Friday with a new layout, singer Angelo Babbaro, and a whole lot of familiar food and features.
The street fair will still be centered on and around Central Square, downtown, but both stages will be in new locations, allowing Federal Street to become an uninterrupted midway of food and other vendors between Phelps and Champion streets.
The Roma stage, which has traditional Italian entertainers, will be on Wick Avenue facing south, with its back at Commerce Street. Seating will be in the open air directly in front of the stage, and two 20-foot-by-40-foot tents will be on either side of the seating as a respite from heat or rain. Unlike in years past, there will be no massive Roma stage tent, as the stage wouldn’t fit under it.
The wine and beer tent, which has a bar and a stage that focuses on pop bands, will be on Champion Street, between Federal and Boardman streets. In years past it was on Federal between Wick and Champion. This tent also will be larger this year – 120 feet long, instead of 100 feet.
A third, smaller tent will be located directly behind the wine and beer tent. It will be used for Friday’s morra contest, the wine competition, and for general overflow crowds at other times.
Another change this year will be in the children’s area. In past years, a block of amusement rides were set up on Federal between Champion and Walnut streets. Those rides will be absent this year. Instead, the festival is partnering with the Oh Wow! Children’s Center at 101 W. Federal Street.
With their admission to the festival, adults can enter Oh Wow! for free but will have to pay $5 for each child.
The admission fee has been raised to $5 this year (it was $4 last year). “We had to raise it because our revenue was down last year due to rain and rising costs,” said John Rossetti, director of the festival. “We use it to fund our scholarships and to give money to charities. We’re not happy about raising it, but we still will provide continuous entertainment on two stages.”
Children 12 and under will be admitted for free.
Speaking of entertainment, the headliner this year will be Canfield’s Angelo Babbaro.
The Sinatra-style crooner is a natural to headline the massive Italian festival, but scheduling kept that from happening until now.
“We’ve tried to get him the past eight years,” said Rossetti, “but we could never coordinate it for one reason or another. He’s local and he’s wonderful, and I think the crowds will enjoy him.”
Babbaro, who performs the Sinatra role in Sandy Hackett’s Rat Pack Show, said the timing was never right until this year.
Returning musical artists include Dom Tocco and Brotherhood, John Gabriele, Rex Taneri, Jim Frank Trio, Frank Gallo, Del Sinchak and Rocky Monaco.
The Houseband, which closed the festival down on Sunday nights for many years but has sharply curtailed its performance schedule, will get together for its traditional slot at the Italian fest.
“I told them ‘People clamor for you guys’ and they agreed to return,” said Rossetti. “On Sunday night, Dom Tocco will be playing on the Roma stage and the Houseband will be playing at the same time in the wine and beer tent, and they will both finish at the same time, and then the fireworks display will start.”
The fireworks are set for 10:50 p.m.
Also new this year is local rock band Radio Lark, who will kick off the Friday night happy hour from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the wine and beer tent.
Chris Iacono-Rutushin, vocalist for the band, pointed out that most members of Radio Lark are Italian-American and that a couple of his songs were even inspired by a trip to Rome he took several years ago.
Adding pizzazz to the center of the midway will be a troupe from the Fred Astaire dance school, who will give performances between sets on the Roma stage. Italian singer Steve Fazzini will also entertain on the midway, as will singer Jaclyn Hodos.
Home wine makers are a growing force in the Mahoning Valley, and the competition this year will be judged by representatives from the area’s wineries. Twenty contestants have entered their wine this year, as well as 25 beermakers and five meads.
Although the festival doesn’t officially open until Friday, many food vendors will be open for lunch today. “Twenty-some vendors will be open for lunch as a trial run, to make sure everything is working,” said Rossetti. “But there is no admission fee until 4 p.m. Friday.”