Today, the Historic Third Ward is known for its trendy shops, great eats and proximity to the lakefront, not to mention the annual lineup of summer festivals it plays host to, including Festa Italiana. While many will enjoy the Italian festival this year (Friday, July 20, through Sunday, July 22), not many people know its history.
From the 1920s to the late 1950s, the area South of Wisconsin Avenue from the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan was known as Little Italy. An Italian community of immigrants established grocery warehouses, manufacturers, liquor distributors and many other prosperous businesses within the boundaries of what is now considered the Third Ward.
While this close-knit Italian community was hard-working, they also knew how to celebrate. Each summer, Italian religious societies such as the Holy Crucifix and Saint Rocco sponsored festivals filled with Italian food and music that were well attended by both the Italians and the surrounding communities of Milwaukee, according to Bill Jennaro, former president of the Italian Community Center from 1994-1995.
In the 1960s, however, these festivals came to a sudden stop. Milwaukee was experiencing a period of urban renewal. Highway construction tore through the heart of the Third Ward, demolishing homes and landmarks—including the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Catholic Church—and displacing the Italian community that called the area home.
Bill Jennaro remembers this period in the Historic Third Ward well.
“They took all of the houses away and some small businesses, a grocery store, a couple of taverns. And so the festivals disappeared. Saint Rocco, the Holy Crucifix. They were eliminated,” says Jennaro. “There was no place to hold the festivals and no neighborhoods as no one lived down there anymore. It created a vacuum, a void in the fabric of Milwaukee.”
Around this time, a festival named Summerfest was created on the land that was once the Maitland airfield. Not only were these grounds specifically designated to hold a festival, but they were located in the Third Ward, where the Italian community had once called home.
The Italian Community Center notes that in February of 1978, leaders from three Italian American organizations in Milwaukee — the Milwaukee Chapter of UNICO National, the Milwaukee Ladies of UNICO, and the Pompeii Men’s Club — suggested putting together one big Italian festival on the Summerfest grounds, similar to those smaller summer festivals previously held in the Third Ward. They named this new festival Festa Italiana.
“The Italians flocked to it because it was like a reunion for them,” says Jennaro. “And the people who were not Italians, who had always come down to the Third Ward to enjoy those small festivals, saw this as a reuniting of that so they flooded in. It was fantastic.”
The first official Festa Italiana was held in 1978 and was a celebration of Italian traditions, offering attendees authentic Italian food and an opportunity to celebrate. It was run entirely by volunteers—from the food servers and musicians to the event planners. Families, both Italian and non-Italian, came to enjoy the food, culture and history of the Italians in Milwaukee.
Not much has changed from that first Festa to the event that is put on today. Jennaro insists that Festa Italiana traditions have been maintained as best as possible.
One way traditions are maintained is through the Italian Heritage Photo and Pompeii Church Exhibit. The exhibit houses nearly a hundred years’ worth of history and is one of the most visited attractions at Festa. Walking through the tent, photos and artifacts can be found of the old Third Ward, the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii Catholic Church and of those Italian families that once called the Third Ward home.
Festa Italiana continues to be one of Milwaukee’s well-loved summer festivals to this day. As the first ethnic festival in Milwaukee, Festa honors the Italian families, businesses and traditions that used to call the Third Ward home. Just as it did when Festa first began, the Milwaukee community continues to come together to help the Italians celebrate each summer.
“It’s a family event, and it’s for everyone’s family, not just Italians,” says Jennaro. “I’m very proud of the positive aspects of Festa and how it has been accepted and embraced by the Milwaukee community. Not just by Italians, but by everybody.”