August 20, 2018
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A member of the crowd dances along with the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival dancers during Huntington's 4th annual Italiano! Italian Festival on Saturday in downtown Huntington. FOR MORE PHOTOS, VISIST WWW.HERALD-DISPATCH.COM.

HUNTINGTON — Italian culture has meshed so tightly into the greater American melting pot that it would be easy to forget just how recently tens of thousands of Italian immigrants arrived in West Virginia — many alive still only the second or third generation of those who sought a better life in America and shouldered some of the heaviest burdens of West Virginia’s industrial revolution.

It’s a heritage cherished dearly — held as personal as the last name their forefathers carried over from Europe — and in just four years it’s helped propel the annual Italiano! Italian Festival into a staple of summer in Huntington.

Live music echoed through downtown all day with a mix of Italian folk and American classics as the West Virginia Italian Heritage Festival dancers hit the streets in traditional garb. The main attraction, as in most Italian homes, was the food, provided by local favorites including Rocco’s Ristorante, 21 at the Frederick, La Famiglia, Bon Appetit, Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar, Chateau D’Italia and Le Bistro.

Proceeds benefit the Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington.

The Lewis D’Antoni family was honored as the festival’s 2018 Italian American Family of the Year. The late D’Antoni, who passed away in November at age 103, was a legendary high school basketball coach beginning at the former Pineville High School in 1937. He amassed 450 wins and five trips to the West Virginia state tournament in his 35-year career, which included stops at the former Mullens High and Chesapeake High in Ohio.

He is the father of Marshall University head men’s basketball coach Dan D’Antoni, Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, assistant state superintendent of schools Kathy D’Antoni and Charleston-based lawyer Mark D’Antoni.

In typical jovial fashion, Dan recalled once looking at one of his father’s earliest basketball photos and spotting some odd, dark coloring on his feet and hands — which turned out to be stains from stomping grapes.

“I knew then that we must be Italian,” the Herd coach joked.

Kathy shared another story about their grandfather, who every April 15 would light a cigar and pour a celebratory glass of wine as he finished paying his taxes.

“He’d say to us, ‘I’m so proud to give back to my country after what they have given to our family,’” she remembered.

Dr. Pete Chirico was honored as the 2018 Italian American Community Leader of the Year for his contributions to Cabell Huntington Hospital, Marshall University and the community at large.

Chirico is the chief of the department of radiology and serves on the board of directors at Cabell Huntington Hospital, is professor and chairman of the department of diagnostic radiology at Marshall, and also sits on the boards for the Marshall Artists Series and the Huntington Museum of Art.

Chirico’s family hails from the village of Teora in southern Italy. He has lived in Huntington for 27 years.

“And for 27 years I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family, wonderful neighbors, wonderful friends, wonderful partners,” Chirico said from the stage. “I love my work, I love what I do and I’m not quitting yet.”

But the loudest and longest ovation was for Sid Torlone, the owner of G.D. Ritzy’s who until recently was hospitalized after a brutal robbery in April, as the Torlone family was honored as the 2018 Italian American Business Family of the Year.

“I’ve still got some work left to do,” Torlone said of his four months spent in rehabilitation after being strangled and beaten. “But there’s nothing like Huntington.”

The Torlones arrived in Logan from Italy in 1922 before relocating to Huntington where they opened Torlone’s Community Bakery on 8th Street, which operated for nearly 50 years.

“My dad and my uncles worked 48 years at the bakery, and I’ve had G.D. Ritzy’s for 35 years, so I must have just jumped right into the family work ethic,” Torlone said.

At the height of immigration, West Virginia became home to more than 17,000 Italians by 1910, which comprised 30 percent of the state’s foreign-born population.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter @BishopNash.

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