Kay Feeney-Caito is not Italian. She describes herself as "very Irish," which makes her role as the public face of the 30th Annual Italian Street Festival a bit odd at first. But Feeney-Caito has been working PR for the Italian Heritage Society for the past six years, after her husband Joseph A. Caito got her involved with the group.
"When the Italian community first came to Indianapolis, they moved to Fountain Square. Grandma Caito lived across the street from Holy Rosary in Fletcher Place, right there," says Feeney-Caito pointing across at what is now part of Eli Lilly's parking lot. "So the family was always very involved."
Holy Rosary is at the heart of the Indy's south-side Italian community. It's the meeting place for the Italian Heritage Society, and it's home to the city's biggest celebration of that community: the Italian Street Festival. It's 40,000 people, packed into a single block, sharing incredible Italian cuisine, tasty brews, and some of the Circle City's favorite local music and amusements for kids. And a whole lot of Italian heritage.
"You've got all of these red, white and green banners waving," Feeney-Caito says, "and the smell of all the food and the sound of the bands playing. But then this procession starts, and everyone just stops and watches. Forty thousand people and you can hear a pin drop, as the kids in their colorful outfits lead the pastor and the members of the Heritage Society in their robes, into the church for mass. It's breathtaking."
For such a massive event, the festival takes up an incredibly small space, barely a block in the historic Fletcher Place neighborhood. It extends from Holy Rosary itself to cover half of the Edna Balz Lacy Family Park, and that's about it. Lilly's parking lot now covers where Grandma Caito's house once stood, but the company graciously opens the lot for festival parking each year.
Midway rides, innumerable vendors and the big crowds that come every year fill up the event's compact footprint. And, of course, there's a stage for live music, which is where Mark Bockstahler comes in. He booked this year's musicians, a selective lineup that errs on the side of approachability over authenticity.
"The Irish Fest has it kind of easy," Bockstahler laments. "Celtic music is recognizable, and it lends itself well to big bands -- everything from Enya to Flogging Molly. With Italian music, it's less recognizable to Americans. You've got either Frank Sinatra impersonators or Verdi."
Bockstahler is quick to say that he doesn't mind either Sinatra or Verdi, but that they may lack the drawing power the festival is looking for. After a hiatus in 2012, the festival is still looking to bring back the energy it used to have. That's why Bockstahler brought in some bands without clear Italian connections, but ones with a big pull in the community.
"The Flying Toasters and the Woomblies have a lot of fans here," says Bockstahler. "These guys fill up the Biergarten at the Rathskeller every time they play. They're really solid groups that know how to play to a crowd."
Still, the show isn't without some risks. Bockstahler's favorite performer is far less established than the two headliners. Cory Williams hails from Center Grove, and Brockstahler calls him the "crowning jewel" of the lineup.
"I hope people come out here to see these bands," says Bockstahler, "because they're really incredible bands. And I do hope to use this as an avenue to support local talent. The Flying Toasters, the Woomblies, they're established. Everyone knows them. We use those kinds of groups to shine a little light on other groups, to get them involved."
That's the message coming out of Italian Street Fest this year: growth. Growing interest in local bands, growing attendance and growing attention to Italian Heritage. Even if you're just there for a mean meatball sandwich and a cannoli, you're welcome. Free attendance and parking mean all it'll cost you is some time. From Verdi to Versace, Italian culture has influenced us all, regardless of our own ethnic heritage.
"You don't have to be Italian to join in the fun, "the decidedly non-Italian Feeney-Caito says. "You just need to have an appreciation of Italian culture."