Community at heart of Ocean Twp. Italian Festival

Nov 23, 2012 2695

OCEAN TOWNSHIP — Organizing and presenting the 36th Annual Township of Ocean Italian Festival is a labor of love for the Italian American Association of the Township of Ocean (IAATO), whose members are the driving force behind the celebration of Italian culture.

"Without our membership, which is now over 340 strong, we would not be able to pull this off," Chuck Theodora festival co-chair, said in a press release.

"Setup begins days in advance and at any given time you will find members at the park cutting rolls and doing all the preparation for the night's activities. In the early morning hours, our zeppole team is in the kitchen making the dough to be sold that night."

Gallello, who at one time ran the zeppole stand, said that the dough has to be made each day.

"Even if we don't use all the dough, we have to toss it out and start fresh the next morning."

The Township of Ocean Italian Festival will open Wednesday, Aug. 8, and run through Sunday, Aug. 12, at Joe Palaia Park, Deal and Whalepond roads in Oakhurst. Entry to the festival has always been free

The community-focused festival features games and concessions run by many local groups and civic organizations including the Oakhurst and Wanamassa fire departments, Spartan Booster Club, Kiwanis of Asbury Park, Ocean Varsity Ice Hockey, Ocean Fusion, Ocean Wizards, and Boy Scouts.

Food venders will serve a variety of Italian fare to please every palate from penne pasta with vodka sauce, fried calamari, sausage and broccoli rabe sandwiches, barbecue chicken and spare ribs, to ice cream and Italian ices.

IAATO favorites sausage, peppers and onions sandwiches along with the legendary zeppoles will also be available.

According to Henry Schepiga, a former festival chairman and longtime Ocean Township resident, when the festival first started in 1976 to celebrate the country's bicentennial, only zeppole were served.

"They were not the best tasting zeppoles. However, a little extra powdered sugar made them taste better and there was a long line all night," Shepiga said in the press release. "Back then there were no rides, fireworks, entertainment, contests or varieties of food."

From this humble beginning, the festival today attracts more than 100,000 visitors during the five-day event.

In 36 years, the festival has had five chairmen, all with strong ties to the community.

The late Michael Cernigliaro, a local attorney and former Ocean Township Municipal Court judge, was the original chairman and held the position for 20 years.

Following Cernigliaro, Anthony Pappa, Schepiga and Carlo Gallelo took their turn as chair for the event.

For the last eight years, Mario Delano, a local attorney and current township municipal prosecutor, oversees the features that make the festival fun, family friendly and exciting.

"Our goal is to provide a high quality, fun, and safe event for families while sharing our Italian heritage, culture and food," Delano said in the press release.

According to Edward A. Lepore, president of IAATO, the festival is the organization's largest annual fundraiser and the proceeds are used to give back to the community.

"Last year the winner's share of the grand 50/50 [drawing] alone was over $14,000 with the other share going back to the community," Lepore said.

Over the course of the year, IAATO donated funds to the Jacqueline Wilentz Breast Center, ARC of Monmouth County Visiting Nurse Association, Interfaith Neighbors of Asbury Park, the Special Olympics, the Monmouth County SPCA and many other groups.

"In that our organization is 'Dedicated to the Children' most of the funds we raise from the festival have been directed to children groups in our community and our scholarship program," he said.

Among the children's groups IAATO has supported are: Boys and Girls Clubs of Monmouth County, Ocean Township High School varsity ice hockey, Ocean Township recreation wrestling, Ocean Township High School band, Ocean Township Little League baseball plus many other youth groups and athletic teams. At the June meeting IAATO, awarded more than $25,000 in scholarships to collegebound students from area high schools.

"Last December IAATO was able to cosponsor a free holiday dinner at our facility for families and senior citizens who were undergoing financial hardships in our community," said Lepore.

Originally made up of local residents, IATTO now boasts a roster with members coming from as far away as Bergen County as well as Ocean County.

"This is an event that people come to year after year and won't miss. In fact, people who have moved out of the area continue to come to town, just to attend." Delano said in the press release.

This year's musical entertainment will include Eric DeLauro, billed as the Frank Sinatra Crooning Rat Pack Singer, Jersey Sound (60's and 70's music), King Casino (a classic rock group), Rock-N-Rhythm (Doo wop), Nick Perone (guitar and vocals), Mario Delano Jr. and Friends, DJ Steve Spezio from A&S Sound Pros, and an Italian street band that will stroll around the midway.

All American Gymnastics and Ganguli Martial Arts, and Miss Mare's All About Dance will present demonstrations.

"A huge draw has become our food- eating contests with prizes being awarded to the winners," Joseph Arentino said.

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