Celebrate all things Italian on Saturday

Not too many years before 93-year-old Josephine Palazzo was born, Columbus Day became a big deal in Kansas City.

A dinner at the Coates House in 1911, when the day was a public holiday only in Missouri and a few other states, drew more than 400 men “prominent in every walk of life,” The Star reported.

Palazzo remembers “special days” that everyone took off to go to Mass and hear about the explorer. “All the Italians loved Christopher,” she said.

Over time, though, the celebration of Columbus faded, and controversy around his legacy grew.

Now community leaders say it’s time for a comeback of sorts. And the public is invited.

A free Columbus Day Social on Saturday will highlight Italian culture, with food (cannoli, Italian sausages, Italian ices) and wine, a car show and music. A republished 1929 book on the history of Italians in Missouri will be available for purchase.

The event’s namesake is Columbus Day, but its real purpose is to shine a spotlight on what Italian culture has brought to the United States, and more specifically to Kansas City, organizer Jody Valet said.

“If we want our community to know about their positive history, we’ve got to make it happen,” she said. “It’s time.”

Valet, who also started the group Kansas City Italians, is focusing in part on Italian contributions to the city’s business community, including familiar names like Cosentino’s and LaSala’s Italian Deli.

She said she wanted “to promote the positive — the clubs, the events, the businesses — because those things have been left out. There’s a lot of history there that we lose every day when people die off.”

Saturday’s event is an attempt to steer toward that cultural celebration and away from the Columbus controversy that reached a crescendo 20 years ago on the 500th anniversary of the explorer’s arrival in the Bahamas.

With Columbus and those who followed came diseases that decimated Native American populations. Slavery in the New World exploded.

And didn’t Leif Erikson make it to North America about 500 years before Columbus?

“All groups have their criticism,” said Michael Donnici, a board member of the American Sons of Columbus’ Kansas City chapter. “To me, if more people would try and get together and promote what each individual group did for the United States (we could) actually put out a real history of everything that’s happened.”

Of late, he said, the community has been asking for an event like Saturday’s.

“There has been a huge influx of the younger Italian Americans trying to learn their history,” Donnici said. “It just kind of went by the wayside for a while.”

Now, he said, it’s back.

Palazzo hopes to be there.

“If I wasn’t 93,” she said, “I’d be the first one up there.”