By Denise Ortuno Neil

Come celebrate Italian heritage with great Italian food, terrific entertainment and a wonderful family fun zone, when Italy meets Rancho Mirage at the 3rd Annual Italian Festival at Whitewater Park on November 2nd and 3rd benefitting Desert Arc. Whitewater Park is located at 71560 San Jacinto Drive in Rancho Mirage, two blocks west of The River (just behind the Elephant Car Wash on Highway 111).

Desert Arc serves 600 clients with developmental disabilities. It has a staff of 200 and operates a large transportation system which includes 24 buses and 18 vans. The mission of Desert Arc is to “Enhance the quality of life and create opportunities for people with disabilities”. Desert Arc’s clients consist of adults with developmental disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, and other medical conditions.

Desert Arc provides its clients with a variety of assistance programs to help them lead independent lives such as job and vocational training, job placement and employment, transportation, social activities and client advocacy, among others.

Desert Arc’s main campus is in Palm Desert. The land was donated by the Western Italian Golf Association in 1983. Currently, the Palm Desert campus has 50,000 square feet of space in five buildings. Desert Arc also has satellite campuses in Yucca Valley and Indio.

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The idea for the Italian Festival came from a suggestion by Executive Director Richard Balocco to Deputy Executive Director Mitch Blumberg in 2010 to create a fall event to complement Desert Arc’s spring Golf Tournament. Blumberg came up with the concept of an Italian Festival as homage to the Western Italian Golf Association and as recognition of the Italian heritage of Mr. Balocco. Blumberg loves cultural festivals such as the Greek Festival and the Tamale Festival. He thought an Italian Festival would be a perfect addition to desert festivals and an awareness builder for Desert Arc.

In 2011 the first Italian Festival was held at Whitewater Park in Rancho Mirage. The city of Rancho Mirage was very supportive as they thought that it would be a cultural attraction for the city. Desert Arc attracted 3,000 Italian Festival goers for the first year event, then 4,000 in year two. “It was a stunning success,” said Blumberg. This year, having expanded to two days, they are expecting even larger numbers, possibly surpassing the 5,000 mark.

This year’s event is once again at the beautiful Whitewater Park in Rancho Mirage on November 2nd and 3rd, from 11am to 5pm on Saturday and 11am to 4pm on Sunday. The festival will be an Italian food-lover’s paradise with upwards of 40 vendors on hand to provide the best in Italian fare. Restaurants include Castelli’s, Mario’s (which will be handing out free cannoli’s), Acqua Pazza, Fisherman’s Market & Grill, Pinzimini at the Westin Mission Hills, Fantasy Springs Resort & Casino, the new Livreri’s Bella Napoli in Rancho Mirage and 3rd Corner Bistro to name some.

The festival starts with Desert Arc’s own choir singing the Italian National Anthem. Santina Pellegrino, Festival Committee Member, will usher in attendees with the traditional Italian dance, the Tarantella. Entertainment is non-stop each day of the festival. Celebrity Joey English, is the MC. Performances include the International Opera Institute, Joyce Garro (formerly a Dean Martin Goldigger), CBS Local 2 Meteorologist Patrick Evans, “That’s Amore” star, Gilmore Rizzo, and Italian music star Filippo Voltaggio as a headliner.

The event includes a spaghetti eating contest and Meatball Dash, where participants will balance meatballs on a spoon. The competition fun persists with the addition of a “Miss Bella Italiana” contest, which awards the winner a $500 scholarship. Contestants need to be between the ages of 16-22 and must have at least one Italian grandparent. As a bonus to the contest, the reigning “Mrs. Italy”, local resident Rene’ Dell’Acqua, will be on hand along with the Italian Consul from Los Angeles.

The festival provides enjoyment for the whole family and includes a great Family Fun Zone with puppet shows by Dandelion Puppeteers, face painting and more. Adults are invited to participate in activities as well including Bocce Ball and “Recycled” craft making. And for those looking for shopping opportunities, there will be a variety of merchandise vendors.

The event has expanded to two days of festival fun, making it convenient for attendees to participate and balance their weekend event schedule. There is Free parking at The River Shopping Center with continuous Desert Arc shuttle buses.

The event has gained momentum and become a relished festival adding to the list of other Coachella Valley cultural festivals, while bringing awareness to Desert Arc. “It’s a great event,” said Executive Director Richard Balocco.

General admission to the Italian Fest is $5 with kids ten and under admitted for free. The cost for food at vendors varies, but hovers at $10 and under.

The Italian Festival is a fabulous family and community event bringing people with a passion for Italian heritage together for food, music and camaraderie. Most importantly, the event puts the spotlight on Desert Arc, their purpose and their clients, focusing on their mission to enhance the lives of those with disabilities.

For more tickets and more information visit www.desertarc.org