Festival organizers, like the rest of the Lowcountry and the world, have faced overwhelming challenges over the past 19 months. Trying to keep events like Zinfest and the Italian Heritage Festival on track in the middle of a pandemic is like watching a Rocky Marciano heavyweight title fight.
“That makes it all the more fun when we get out and get together,” said John DeCecco, president of the Italian-American Club of Hilton Head Island, the organizers of two big local events in October. “Johnny D,” as he’s affectionately known, said there has never been a better time to celebrate Italian heritage.
COVID may have won a round in canceling the event last year, but it could never knock out the Italian spirit behind the pair of celebrations. “We are fighters, and we’ve all been through the ringer. But no matter the heritage, we have all fought through a lot here. We’re due a couple big days of fun, family and food and drink.”
The festivities kick off on October 13 with the Zin Experience with Italian Flair, a night of wine tasting held at the Shore House at the Omni Oceanfront Resort. The night is filled with the liquid tastes of Italy set to be explored on the Palmetto Dunes deck overlooking the ocean. Guests have access to wine stations featuring selections of zinfandels, as well as an array of reds, whites and Proseccos.
Zinfandel is a variety of black-skinned wine grape most widely grown in California, but wine connoisseurs have shown it to be the genetic equivalent of the Primitivo variety grown in Apulia, the “heel” of the geographical Italian boot.
“It’s a wonderful wine that deserves the spotlight, but we honor all wines on this night,” DeCecco said. “We’re thrilled with the variety this year. Our distributors have really outdone themselves. It’s a big win for our guests.”
Wine experts will be on hand to pour their favorite wines and describe what makes them their favorites. Full bottles of your favorites will be available for purchase. The event runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and include a spread of hors d’oeuvres to accompany the wines almost as perfectly as the sunset.
“It always proves to be a magical night, just a great way to get our celebration underway,” DeCecco said.
Ten days later, the fun shifts to the Honey Horn grounds at the Coastal Discovery Museum for the eleventh annual Italian Heritage Festival. The event was designed in the tradition of New York’s Feast of San Gennaro, a day of food, music and togetherness to celebrate the rich heritage of Italian Americans.
The festival features food from a vast array of dishes for purchase from local eateries, including Mulberry Street Trattoria, Michael Anthony’s, SERG Group restaurants Frankie Bone’s and Giuseppi’s Pizza and Pasta, and New York City Pizza. A $6 ticket gets you access to a full selection of traditional Italian recipes filled with cheeses, breads, pasta, fish, meatballs and sausage, along with sweets like gelato, biscotti and zeppolis and beverages like Peroni and wine to top off the perfect day of gluttony. A kids’ play area will also be part of the day to keep the young ones entertained in between meals.
“I’ll tell you, our vendors don’t skimp on their dishes. They always come strong for this day. We’re so proud of the relationships we’ve built through the years. They truly make this a family affair,” DeCecco said.
Music will be provided this year by the 16-member Hilton Head Plantation Big Band, who took over for long-time festival performers Larry and Claudette Tanelli after Larry passed away in 2020 from COVID-19.
“Those are big shoes to fill, Larry and Claudette always did a wonderful job for us,” said Paul Caimano, festival chairman for the past eight years. “We had entertainers from across the country wanting to perform at the festival, but the Big Band really won us over. I think they’ll honor Larry wonderfully.”
DeCecco said the festival has become a staple on Hilton Head because it celebrates the deep family roots that are a foundation of Italian-American upbringings.
“I grew up in the North End of Providence, Rhode Island and growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, my grandparents came from Italy. The pride, dignity and love they had for their heritage was only matched by the love they had for America,” said DeCecco, a second-generation Italian American. “They came here for the American Dream, the opportunity they didn’t have in Italy. But one thing that they made sure they kept intact in America was the Sunday dinner.
“You had to be there, period. It was all about food, family and fun. Boy, did we have a good time,” he said. “I ate two Sunday dinners with my grandparents. I’d start at my mom’s parents’ house for lunch, then go to my father’s parents’ later for dinner. Those full bellies, the incredible memories, that’s the atmosphere we create at the festival.”
Plus, there will once again be a silent auction where festival goers can bid on great prizes like restaurant gift cards and golf outings, with all proceeds going to support the club’s community charity efforts.
The event draws upwards of 3,000 people annually, with the biggest crowd coming in 2017 when the club organized the breaking of the Guinness World Record for the largest meatball, a 1,707-pound creation of chef Joe Sullivan cooked inside a specially designed pod (built by club member Kevin Lawless) and a custom-built oven.
“Go big or go home, you know? That’s the only way we know,” DeCecco said of the feat that he said symbolizes the energy put into the festival planning. “It’s a Herculean effort our club members and volunteers put in, but it’s all for a great cause that we believe in so much. The members of this club believe in community first, and the festival helps us meet that mission.”
The IAC funds six $1,000 scholarships given to area students annually, just one of the many ways the club gives back to the community. DeCecco is proud that even though COVID canceled last year’s event, club members raised enough money among themselves to fully fund the scholarships in 2020.
The club is an independent organization that began under the UNICO National umbrella but has operated as a standalone group for the past 17 years. “UNICO, Sons of Italy, all the national groups, we all honor our heritage. We just found this was the best way to make the most impact locally, to direct the most funds back into the community,” DeCecco said of the club’s independence.
The IAC was part of the movement that led the state to create a law officially designating October as Italian-American Heritage month in South Carolina. And DeCecco and the 130-plus members also worked with the Town of Hilton Head to create a sister-city agreement with Verona, Italy, a relationship sealed after 240 club members joined town officials in a goodwill trip to Verona in 2019.
“There are so many benefits that come from these relationships, from student exchanges to worker exchanges to sharing ideas and our best efforts in keeping our heritage thriving,” DeCecco said.
The club meets Thursdays at Il Carpaccio on Hilton Head Island’s north end. New members are always welcome.
To purchase tickets to Zinfest and the Italian-American Heritage and to get more information on the club, visit iachh.org. Tickets to Zinfest can also be purchased at the Hilton Head Wine and Spirits Shop at Shelter Cove prior to the event.