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Winning recipe Italian Festival participants prepare for food and fun

Eddie Mekka is ready to start eating. As one of the musical headliners at the Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival, Mekka says he is not only warming up his vocal cords, but also preparing to feed his large appetite.

"I'll come to Buffalo, relax, sing, eat -- eat a lot of food," said Mekka, known for his role as Carmine on "Laverne & Shirley."

"I love to cook," Mekka said. "But I won't be doing any cooking when I'm there. I'm gonna be doing tasting and eating."

If last year's festival is any indication, Mekka won't be alone. The festival, which begins Thursday, has become known for its ability to attract, entertain and perhaps most importantly feed, many Western New Yorkers.

"I'd like to think that Italian culture in general is what draws people," said Peter LoJacono, a member of the festival's board of directors. "But probably part of it is the food. And, of course, we know there is no lack of food at the festival, that's for sure."

With more than 62 food and beverage vendors, the festival will be serving up everything from sweet cannolis to the classic panini. Stuffed peppers, Italian ice and calamari will also be available to ensure the affair has plenty of culinary variety.

Entering its 31st year, the Hertel Avenue festival also attempts to celebrate Italian heritage through various family-oriented activities such as a bocce tournament, an exhibit on Italian sports stars and appearances by Miss Italian Festival.

Fans of "American Idol" can watch Buffalo's own aspiring stars try their hand at singing in the fourth annual Italian Idol contest.

"It's really very, very popular," LoJacono said. "We ask that the participants be at least 50 percent Italian, and they just belt out their best, and we have judges. It's kind of like 'American Idol,' but with an Italian twist."

Twelve contestants will be selected from those who submitted a demo tape. They'll perform in front of the festival audience in the July 14 semifinals and, if invited back, during the July 15 finals. The winner will be awarded a $500 prize, as well as the title of Italian Idol.

Mekka, who will open the festival Thursday night on the main stage, says he thinks these types of live shows are what truly showcase an artist's talent.

"I like live performances, whether it's theater or doing concerts, because it's live and there's no phoniness. . . . You're real," Mekka said. "[Audiences] don't care how cute you are, or how long you've been on TV. It's like, 'Entertain me.' If you mess up, you keep going. You don't walk off and come back later. You really have to be sharp, and you really have to know your art and your tools. Doing the live performances, the audience keeps you honest."

Whether it's watching Mekka in concert or having a couple of cannolis, LoJacono and his board have put together a busy event.

"We've got tons of entertainment, and tons of things for people to do and enjoy," LoJacono said. "We really look forward to giving Buffalo a little piece of Italy for those four days."

e-mail: mhirschbeck@buffnews.com

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WHAT: Sorrento Cheese Italian Heritage Festival

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through July 14 and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. July 15

WHERE: Hertel Avenue between Virgil and Crestwood

INFO: www.buffaloitalianfestival.com

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Happenings on Hertel / Highlights of the Italian Festival

>Thursday

Opening Ceremonies, 6 p.m.

Eddie Mekka, 8 p.m., Main Stage

>Next Friday

Flag Throwers from Torremaggiore, Italy, perform on the street all day

Tony Galla, 8 p.m., Main Stage

>July 14

Bocce Open Tournament, 11 a.m., Delaware/Hertel Entrance

Italian Idol Semifinals, 2 p.m., Main Stage

Buffalo Divas, 8 p.m. Main Stage

>July 15

Bilingual Mass, 9:30 a.m., Main Stage

Italian Idol Contest Finals, 2 p.m., Main Stage

Junction West, 8 p.m., Main Stage

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