ron onesti grilling, small

Ron Onesti:  Dreamin’ about our Summer Festivals

By this time, we would have produced our 27th Annual “Festa Pasta Vino” Italian Block Party Father’s Day weekend on Oakley Avenue in Chicago.  And our “Little Italy Fest-West” in Addison would have just concluded with The Bronx Wanderers from Las Vegas.  We would be getting ready for the “Grand Dad” of all Italian Festivals, our “Taylor Street Little Italy Festa”.

But that is all just a dream for this year.

These festivals have become a huge part of so many families, including my own.  The sheer joy that so many people get from what we put together is one of the most rewarding feelings one could ever have.  And to know that folks actually schedule their Summer vacations around what we have created is an honor in and of itself.  Year after year, they return with bigger families and more friends.  They become part of OUR family.

It all began in 1980 with Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne’s initiative to bring summer fun to the neighborhoods. They were celebrations of Chicago’s ethnic diversity, focusing on various cultures that made up the fabric of the city.

The first “Neighborhood Festival” was on the North side. It was a Polish Fest at Hanson Park on Fullerton and Central Avenues. I was a senior at Weber High School just around the corner from the park, so I wanted to check it out. It was a one-day free event on a Saturday.

A buddy and I attended the outdoor party. We couldn’t believe the people!  Thousands of happy sausage and sauerkraut eaters were buying food and singing along with the “Polish Prince” himself, Bobby Vinton. The combination of blue-eyed blondes and pierogi (Polish meat-filled dumpling cousins of ravioli) was almost too much for me to handle. Was this what Heaven was like (insert Sinatra music)?

Then I saw a poster promoting the next neighborhood festival. It was an Italian Fest at Riis Park, just up the street on Diversey Avenue near Narragansett. I was all over this! Wait a second … Tony Bennett is headlining? Are you kidding me? Sign me AND my meatballs up!

The fest was only two weeks away so I had to work fast. Turns out, my aunt’s office was next door to the  Italian-American organization working with the city on this festival, The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.  My aunt “knew a guy”, Chicago style, who could get me a spot in the festival.  A pan of her homemade lasagna and a small donation to the organization later, I was in…quicker than a Chicago precinct captain dropping off turkeys at Christmas.

The “good stuff” was already spoken for though … pasta, sausage, pizza, Italian ice.  So I settled for frozen bananas hand-dipped in chocolate. Not very Italian, but I didn’t care. I HAD to be a part of this!

Don’t forget, this was a time before health department rules and city inspector guidelines. I peeled, Popsicle-sticked and packed bananas, eliciting help from anyone who had a freezer. I showed up with my folding card-table, a kitchen crock pot to warm the chocolate, and a Macanudo cigar box to hold the cash. I was in business!

For eight solid hours I dipped and served, dipped and served. I literally filled up Hefty bags with singles, $2 at a time. I hit the lottery (even though it didn’t exist yet). I was ready to quit school and buy stock in the Chiquita Company.

Next, I got into the Feast at Ford City Mall, a large food festival on the South Side by Midway Airport happening just two weeks later. I rented three trucks, a storefront on 61st and Cicero and about a dozen reach-in freezers. I hired two dozen local teens to man my assembly line. I went to the Royal Crown Co. and secured a couple hundred of those brown cardboard box trays that held the cases of RC Cola cans. It was Ronnie Wonka and the Banana Factory! Bring on the Banana Republic…I was ready to make my college money!

Well, it rained for four straight days and my “heaven” turned into the Bananamityville Horror. That was thirty-five years ago … and I am STILL bringing some of my frozen banana inventory to summer parties.

Twenty-seven years ago, we began “Festa Pasta Vino” on South Oakley Avenue at 24th Street, in the “Heart of Chicago”.  It brought attention to the “Little Tuscany” neighborhood that at one time had eight Italian restaurants on that side-street.

Several of the traditional eateries began in the 1920s to feed the many workers who came from the Tuscany region of Italy to work at the neighboring Ryerson Steel plant.  Many of the workers would share apartments on Oakley Avenue while they sent their paychecks back home.  That tradition continued into the 1970s, as other trattorias opened, and remain there to this day.

“Festa Pasta Vino” has become a Father’s Day tradition.  It truly warms my heart as so many families have made this an annual pilgrimage.  When I hear statements such as, “We used come every year as our Father’s Day present to our dad.  He is gone now, but we fly in from all over the country every Father’s Day weekend to come to your festival, and remember our dad,” I tear up with pride.

As this event is in the heart of the city, many people whose families have emigrated to Chicago suburbs requested that I do something for them out there.  Fifteen years ago, I put together “Little Italy Fest-West in Addison.  It is an event that emulates what we do on Oakley Avenue, except my staff and I cook for the entire 40,000 attendees!  Food, fun and entertainment, its all there…and then some!

About twelve years ago, we brought back a tradition to Chicago’s Little Italy on Taylor Street, between Ashland Avenue and Loomis Street.  It became the “Grand-daddy” of all Italian festivals.  It was really about what has become known as, “The Old Neighborhood,” and thousands came back to enjoy the food, the six stages of entertainment and the memories of parents and grandparents who came from Italy to start a new life there for their families.

After a five-year sabbatical, we returned to MY old neighborhood to re-instill that Taylor Street tradition (my family settled on Taylor Street and Western Avenue in 1911 and I was born there).  It was touted as “The best one ever” buy many of the over 100,000 in attendance, including the sponsoring neighborhood organization, the Little Italy Chicago Neighborhood Association (LICNA).

But sorry to say, it looks like it will be next year before we will be able to come together and celebrate great food, wine and entertainment in that type of setting again.   Those days WILL return!  The smells of roasting garlic and grilling sausage,  the sounds of Sinatra, Dion, The Four Seasons, Dean Martin and Pavarotti, and the smiles of beautiful people singing, dancing and eating under the stars will be back before, ehhhhh… you know it!

I dream of the return of those days and nights, as I know you do, too.  Let’s keep the faith and look forward to them.  Before you know it, the “Festival Gods” will looking down upon us, smiling and saying “Mangia!, Mangia, Mangia!”