The famous flag wavers, Sbandieratori from Asti, will appear at the Italian Festivals in Phoenix and Sun City. (Courtesy of the Italian Association of Arizona)

Six men dreamed of bringing a piece of Italy to the desert, so the country would be represented in the best light.

Thus, the Scottsdale-based nonprofit Italian Association of Arizona was born.

“The founders wanted to find a way to bring Italians and those of Italian heritage together in one place to share pieces of their culture that fade away with every generation,” said Francesco Guzzo, executive director and Gilbert resident.

“The founders wanted to find a way to share that culture with those who appreciate what Italians and Italy has to offer. As much as we all love and enjoy true Italian cooking, Italy represents so much more than the food.”

The art, music, culture and traditions will be honored during the eighth annual Italian Festival at Heritage Square in Phoenix on Saturday, March 4, and Sunday, March 5. The following weekend, Saturday, March 11, and Sunday, March 12, Sun City will host the first Italian Festival at the Sundial Recreation Center.

“We started with a small event along the Southbridge in Old Town Scottsdale in 2014 with a few vendors and lot of enthusiasm,” Guzzo said.

“Eight festivals later, we are hitting attendance capacity and keeping Italian traditions alive.”

The Italian Festival has a variety of live entertainment during the weekend including opera singers, The Sicilian Band, accordion player Cory Pesaturo, and traditional flag wavers from the Piemonte region.

“The flag wavers are finally able to come back after being gone since 2019,” Guzzo said.

“Fifteen or 16 flag wavers are flying in to perform throughout the festival. That’s a big deal for us. Everybody loves the flag wavers. Since COVID, they’ve been locked down and Italy was never back to normal the way it was here.”

The event will provide authentic cuisine such as fresh biscottis, gelato, espresso, pasta and pizza. A few local vendors include L’Impasto, Little Italy of Scottsdale, Pasta Rea, My Daddy’s Italian Bakery and Pomo Pizzeria.

Non-food vendors will sell jewelry, handmade Italian leather purses and other items. Plus, children can enjoy face painting and balloon makers in the Kids Fun Zone.

The Italian Festival in Phoenix is sponsored by Peroni, DTPHX, Galbani, Queen Creek Olive Mill, Anderson Windows, PepsiCo and Desert Rose Transportation. The VIP Experience is thanks to Campari & Aperol.

Guzzo called La Cucina Galbani Cooking Stage a highlight.

“No one would have thought there would be such a solid Italian community in the desert and yet, here we are,” he said.

“It’s a little dispersed, but our voice can be heard and now we can finally be seen. Historically speaking, the first known Italian to come through Arizona was Father Kino back in the late 1600s and built missions that still stand today.”

In 1691, Father Eusebio Kino made the first of about 40 expeditions into Arizona.

Now there’s a new generation of Italians making their mark in Arizona, he said. They range from Jerry Colangelo, businessman and sports executive, to chef Joey Maggiore who owns several local and national Italian and concept restaurants and is keeping his father’s (Tomaso Maggiore) legacy alive.

A repeat visitor to the festival is Margherita Fray of Scottsdale. The 96-year-old is the last living known partisan and an artist.

“There’s something unique and special about that lady,” Guzzo said. “I love that lady to death. We’re happy to support her and give her an opportunity to showcase her artwork. It’s just beautiful.”

Entrenched in the arts, she also penned a book called “Marisa’s Courage.” She was raised in an anti-fascist family in Italy, where they were witness to bombings and executions by home-grown and foreign aggressors.

She became a member of the Resistenza as a partisan, belonging to a group called the Garibaldi Brigade around her home city of Turin and participated in dangerous missions to support the fighters in the underground for several years.

Fray is still emotionally distraught over memories of this time. In 1947 she came to America as a war bride, marrying a man she had briefly met a year earlier. She endured the marriage to a “deeply flawed” man and moved to Scottsdale in 2000.

“There are still wars today and lives are still being lost,” she said through her daughter, Angela Fray. “The war in Ukraine has really affected me and brought back many memories. Countries don’t fight wars. The leaders of countries fight wars.”

Fray said she enjoys meeting people at the festival and sharing her story in person.

“I am amazed that there is still so much interest in World War II,” she added. At the festival, she enjoys “the food and meeting vendors and seeing people enjoy themselves. The Italian Association does a great job.

“Italy has ancient history and art. I am really proud of being Italian. I am from a beautiful city and the former capital of Italy.”