Like many kids who grew up in the Village – a historic Italian-American neighborhood in downtown Jersey City – Nick Grillo’s summers were marked by the red, white and green arches that appeared in the streets surrounding Holy Rosary Church. “They would come up in July, and we knew that the festival was just one month away,” he told Best of NJ.
“And then once they come down, I was sad because I knew going back to school was around the corner and I had to wait another year for the summer feast.”
Flashing forward to adulthood, Grillo’s enthusiasm for the annual celebration has not waned. A lifelong parishioner at Holy Rosary Church, he currently serves as Co-Chairman of the Festival, as well as organist and music director of the Church. Holy Rosary’s annual August festival pays tribute to Our Lady of Assumption and Saint Rocco. Since 1902, thousands of parishioners have flocked to the event each summer.
Over ten years ago, the Church decided to rebrand the “Annual Parish Feast” and call it “La Festa Italiana” (The Italian Festival). The name change was a marketing move aimed not so much at parishioners but instead towards inviting the broader community. For Grillo, the Festival – as time-honored as its traditions are – only benefits from keeping up with the changing pace of the community; “We realized the neighborhood was changing and we wanted to go with that. For all of these people moving in to Jersey City who have never been to an Italian Festival, how would they know what a Parish Feast was and who it was for?”
That kind of forward thinking keeps the event one of the most enduring, anticipated events in town. There are the tried and true festival classics – games, rides, bouncy castles, raffles, music, peach wine, rice balls, zeppoles and live music – plus new additions which speak to the changing residential landscape of the town. Jersey City is in the middle of a massive economic boom, with young professionals, families and creatives flocking here.
This year, as in festivals recently past, Grillo took time to speak with those in attendance who he identifies as being relatively new in town. “I introduce myself, ask them if they are having a good time, and if there is anything they would like to see different. They’ve got some good ideas.”
The fruits of those conversations were evident at this year’s feast. Vendors selling organic soap and bee byproducts were comfortably ensconced between the Italian sub and pizza stations. The White Star, a local pub chain popular with Jersey City’s twenty-something residents, set up full bar stations. There was also an assortment of non-Italian food and a diverse booking of live music acts.
“We incorporated new music acts this year, not just oldies and Motown. And I think it was a great success,” said Grillo. “It’s always a good sign when the kids stop and listen to the band, rather than just walking by.”
Whether these new traditions will stay or be re-tweaked as more folks move to Jersey City, there is no denying the power of some of the Festival’s evergreen traditions. On Sunday, the last night of the Festival, folks gathered to hear Total Soul, a band who played R&B, Soul and Motown classics to thunderous approval from the diverse crowd.
Among those in the crowd that night was Brody Sheldon, a young mother from Paulus Hook. Her family moved to Jersey City in 2010 from Chicago, when her job as a hotel investment professional transferred to New York City and her husband, a professor, took a position at Rutgers Business School in Newark. Her two young boys in tow, Sheldon sips from a craft beer while portioning rations of an Italian sub between them. When asked what drew her to La Festa Italiana, she said, “We come every year. We get to live in this up and coming town and then step back in time and experience this old Italian neighborhood. What’s not to love?”
This year’s La Festa Italiana was held on August 10-14. To learn more about past festivals or next year’s event, visit the official La Festa Italiana website, or visit the festival’s Page on Facebook.
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Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © La Festa Italiana / Facebook