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New at Italian Festival: Niagara Square becomes a piazza, da Vinci exhibit and more food

Back in the 1950s, a lawn fete that would eventually become Buffalo's Italian Festival happened for the first time in front of St. Anthony of Padua Church near Niagara Square. The festival stayed there for years, until moving to Connecticut Street in the 1970s, Hertel Avenue in the 1980s, then a brief stint at the Outer Harbor.

Now, the Italian Festival is back at Niagara Square and just like the recent Taste of Buffalo, the area will be blocked off – this time with cannoli vendors, rides and lots of crooning Frank Sinatra cover artists. Here's a look at this summer's event.

Where: Niagara Square, down Delaware Avenue to Huron Street

When: 11 a.m. to 10:45 p.m. July 20 and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. July 21

Admission: The festival is free this year, which is a change from the $5 admission fee charged at the Outer Harbor.

[Related: Why the Italian Festival moved to the Outer Harbor]

New this year: Niagara Square will transform into a piazza with Roman columns, fountains and tables with red, white and green umbrellas. A piazza is a public city square where people gather. Italy magazine refers to piazzas as "the very core of the community, the key to understanding local life."

"In Italy, they're all over the place," said festival board member Chris DelPrince. "And the whole town would go to this piazza to gather."

Italian street musicians will wander the piazza. Coffee and ice cream will be available.

While all of the usual Italian food favorites – from cannoli to meatballs to pasta – will return, try some of the new dishes, too. Look for stuffed dandelion lasagna, stuffed artichokes, eggs and dandelion, and torrone candy from DiCamillo Bakery, which is a bark of honey, sugar and nuts that bakers chisel off with a hammer.

The Ilio DiPaolo Italian Heritage Tent will host a new exhibit of 16 inventions by Renaissance artist, scientist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.

Parking: There is free street parking or parking available in paid downtown lots.

[Related: Your guide to eating the 2017 Italian Festival]

Entertainment: Saturday's entertainment is a lot more musical, welcoming local acts such as jazz saxophonist Don Menza playing with Joe Giambra at 1:30 p.m., Italian group the Formula Band playing at 5 p.m. and Sal "The Voice" Valentinetti, a Sinatra singer and 2016 "America's Got Talent" finalist. Fireworks close out the night at 10 p.m.

Sunday's lineup is more traditional, with an 11 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony Church, followed by a procession of Italian hymns at noon. Then, the morning takes a bizarre turn with two cheese-building contests — one for children and one for celebrities — hosted by Galbani. At 2 p.m., singers compete for Italian Idol. At 5 p.m., another prime-time competitive television star, Austin Giorgio, a 22-year-old Rochester native who was a contestant on "The Voice" last year will perform, followed at 6:30 p.m. by Atlantic City Boys, a Frankie Valli tribute band.

Vendors: The Italian Festival is just as much a carnival as it is a cultural heritage event, meaning that Fat Bob's Smokehouse serves food alongside Marco's Italian Deli, near Johnny's Fried Dough and Pop n' Bob's kettle corn. For every traditional American vendor, there are several authentic Italian ones. Eat pizza from Campi's Pizza, Mister Pizza and Pizza Amore. Savor cannolis from Muscarella's Cannoli and Panaro's. Buffalo's culinary Italian behemoths such as Salvatore's, Mineo & Sapio, Osteria 166 and Romeo and Juliet's will all have booths.

Activities: Cooking and wine demonstrations will alternate throughout both days, with chefs from Osteria 166, Gigi's Cucina, Sweet Treats of Buffalo 716 and a demonstration by Dave Greber, an anchor at WIVB-TV.

Can't-miss events: With eight different grape stomping times, there's no excuse not to get your feet wet (with grape juice). Stomp in front of City Hall either day at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. For children, there will be crafts, face painting and a puppet show every couple of hours. Want to know more about your Italian roots? Sit down with a  genealogists from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. under the heritage tent.

[Related: Buffalo’s Italian Americans celebrate heritage and tradition as festival’s main event]

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