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The Italian Spirit is alive and well, and it was in full swing at the city of Orange.
International Fair. This past Labor Day weekend, despite the scorching summer heat, the Fair turned out record crowds. With musicians playing everything from Salsa to Rock, people of all ages cruised Orange circle and its adjoining streets, buying everything from jewelry to pork Carnitas to German strudel. It was a day of fun, sun, and giving, as most of the proceeds went towards local non-profit organizations.
And there, right at the heart of the fair, at the tip of West Chapman Ave, stood one of its most iconic sites: the Italian booth. Operated by members of Orange County’s Renaissance Lodge -a club dedicated in promoting “a positive image of Americans of Italian heritage,” the booths on Italian street served up frosty Italian ice, meatball and sausage club sandwiches topped with onions and bell peppers, and pizza.
As for myself, I decided to join them in order to get to know the Lodge members and see what has made their booths so incredibly popular. After making my way through the crowds and past the street tacos and lemonade stands, I knew I was drawing near when I heard passerbys utter, “Did you try that Italian sausage? You gotta get that meatball sandwich.” Soon, I saw the friendly smiles of the Italians.
Since its inception in 1973, Frank DeSantis, past president and co-founder of the Renaissance Lodge, has been instrumental in the booth’s success. With his father from San Pietro Apostle in Calabria and his mother from Turi in the province of Bari in Puglia, Mr. DeSantis was from the start, a key person in getting the needed supplies, recruiting help, and in transporting to the fair grounds special “warmer” ovens to sell pizza. Both he and his family including his daughter, Kathy, have worked the booths for decades.
“Initiated by Vincent Licata, a local business owner…Italian Street was approved by the City of Orange as a welcome participant… It was quite an undertaking for a few dozens years for all of us, our friends, family and lodge members who have gathered every Labor Day weekend rain or shine. We all grew up in it,” explained Kathy DeSantis. She further pointed out the importance of its many dedicated and hard working volunteers.
“Without the volunteers, it would just not work,” Frank DeSantis explained. “The Italian Street, although hot and busy is a great way to have fun together, meet the public and have them learn about the Italian American presence in Orange County….The lodge members brought their kids who were given an opportunity to work along others of Italian heritage of all ages.”
After a tour of the booths by members Michele Lowinger and Mary Jane Cambria, I donned on my gloves and was placed next to Tim Hanneman, the chairman of set up. With his bright blue eyes and smile, Tim showed me the ropes as I began prepping the bread. We fed one after another, while one young man, a student at Chapman University, told me while eating his sandwich, “è buonissimo!”
Working all weekend long, Tim has volunteered for over thirty-five years. “I was in my twenties when I started. I liked the people and I knew they needed help. It gives the young people a sense about serving others,” he told me. “A few of us, Carrie, Paul, Lenny, and Sean all set up.”
Tim also acknowledges the hard work of the volunteers including the younger generation. One such gal is Christine Dito, a sophomore at Mater Dei high school, who has helped out for the last five years. “It’s nice to share our culture with others in the OC,” she pointed out, “and I love to hear the stories the Italians share.” I looked at her grandfather, Pete Dito who serves as the lodge’s youth committee chair. “You can’t help but smile when you eat pizza,” he told a customer and her little daughter. “Say Pizza, say cheese, and you just put on a smile.”
At the end of my shift, I turned in my apron. Although by now the summer’s heat and long hours were beginning to take their toll, the volunteers still so cheerful, began the long process of cleaning up. Looking around, I realized that this was much more about sausages and pizza-- it was about giving, about togetherness and passing all this to a newer generation. Right before I left, a member wrapped up a sausage club, handed it to me, and said, “Grazie cara.”
Heading to my car, I took a bite, tasting the mild spices. My eyes opened up real wide. It was beyond delicious. With Latino music playing in the background, and my stomach content and my heart happy, I could still hear in the distance, Mr. John Russo, Sr. a gentleman who was a cashier the entire night, still calling out into the crowd , “Get your pizza. Get your sausages. Come all. Best in town.”
For more information, go to www.renaissancelodge2259.com