“A family reunion for the town:” The Grape Festival returns to Tontitown

“A family reunion for the town:” The Grape Festival returns to Tontitown

Henry Piazza remembers the Tontitown Grape Festival when it featured 25 cent outdoor movies and glass bottles of Coca-Cola, long before there were concerts and carnival rides.

Piazza, 86, lives across the street from the house he was born in in 1936. He has called Tontitown home his entire life, and he and his wife Charlotte founded the town’s history museum.

For Piazza and many others with roots in Tontitown, this week in August is a reminder of a rich history that spans generations.

Ryan Pianalto, chairman of the event, says the Grape Festival began in 1898 as “the picnic,” a celebration of a plentiful grape harvest by the Italian immigrants that settled Tontitown. Families gathered to celebrate Holy Mass in thanksgiving, share a meal and celebrate. That very first picnic would become the largest tradition in Tontitown today.

Father Pietro Bandini, a Catholic priest sent to help these Italian immigrants, also helped found the town and find families land to settle there. Bandini became the first pastor in Tontitown, as well as the first mayor.

This year, the five-day celebration continues through Aug. 6 and features a grape stomp, carnival rides, an arts and crafts fair, live music, bingo, comedy acts and the beloved spaghetti dinner.

Misty Piazza, Henry’s daughter-in-law, says the week feels like a family reunion for the town.

“A lot of the founding families travel back even if they don’t live in Northwest Arkansas anymore,” she explains. “It’s kind of like a family reunion in a lot of ways. A lot of past generations will come back, and you’ll see whole families together coming to visit or eat the dinners.”

Heather Ranalli-Peachee is the fourth generation of Ranallis in Tontitown. Her father, Chris Ranalli, is the last commercial grape grower in town and grows all the grapes for the festival, she says.

Ranalli-Peachee says the Grape Festival has always been a prominent part of her family’s life. She thinks the rich history of the event is what makes it unique.

“Washington County Fair and Benton County Fair are really awesome, but the tradition and the history that we have at the festival makes it extra special,” Ranalli-Peachee says.

One of her favorite traditions is the homemade spaghetti dinner at the parish hall at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“It’s a Tontitown specific meal,” Ranalli-Peachee says. “It’s not spaghetti and meatballs, it’s spaghetti and fried chicken because the Italians moved next door to Springdale and they had lots of chickens. I think that’s what makes it unique.”

The spaghetti-making process is a beloved tradition for many families in town. Misty Piazza went with her kids and her husband Dean Piazza to make spaghetti from scratch last week. The process takes four separate days and a huge community effort. This year, the community made 3,500 pounds of pasta for the festival.

Dean Piazza, Henry’s son, says the festival reminds him of the importance of remembering the hardships his ancestors faced.

“When they came over to Northwest Arkansas and established Tontitown, they didn’t have anything,” Piazza says. “They had log cabins, and they made barns out of field rocks. They were very resourceful and used the land.”

As Piazza shares the traditions of the festival with his children, he tries to pass along a sense of gratitude for his family’s history as well.

Piazza recalls learning about how long before there was spaghetti and fried chicken, the original settlers had polenta, homegrown tomatoes and roasted rabbits they shot in the woods. He says he likes to compare and contrast the festival today to the experiences of the original Italian immigrants.

“The trick is keeping the history alive and not letting it die,” Piazza says. “The memory of the people who came rests with my generation and my kids. To keep it going, we’re going to have to keep telling these stories.”



Tontitown Grape Festival

Aug. 5 — Museum open 1-7 p.m.; arts & crafts 3-10 p.m.; spaghetti dinners, 4:30-8:30 p.m.; music at 6 & 9 p.m.; Queen Concordia crowned at 8 p.m.

Aug. 6 — Run for the Grapes 5K Walk / Run, 7 a.m.; kids’ run, 8 a.m., museum open 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; arts & crafts 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; music starts at noon; spaghetti dinners, 4:30-8:30 p.m.

Categories: Family Friendly