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Being Italian is a state of mind

A group founded by Duluth's most prominent Italian Americans is looking for members to keep the group alive. Frank Befera, who owned local television stations, and Jeno Paulucci, local entrepreneur and founder of Michelina's and Chun King, founde...

St. Peter's Catholic Church
Located in Duluth's Little Italy neighborhood, St. Peter's Catholic Church, at 810 W. Third Street, was the heart of Italian culture in Duluth. Built by volunteer stonemasons between 1925 and 1927, the church closed in 2010. (File photo)

A group founded by Duluth's most prominent Italian Americans is looking for members to keep the group alive.

Frank Befera, who owned local television stations, and Jeno Paulucci, local entrepreneur and founder of Michelina's and Chun King, founded the club in 1976. The men started the club with the intent to promote Italian heritage in the community through food and fellowship. One year later, the Women's Auxiliary was added.

Last year the club lost, through death, Jeno Paulucci and Mike Colallio, a Medal of Honor winner. The women's group lost Margaret Cherro, who died at age 106 in March. She was known as a historian of Duluth's Little Italy neighborhood.

"It's good fellowship, and it's a good way to keep the Italian heritage alive," said Denice Campanario, scholarship committee chair for the Italian American Club.

Maria Illanardo said that people with Italian American heritage are "passionate." She quoted a poster with a saying that her father, the late Pasquale Iallonardo, kept at their family lake cabin.

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The poster reads, in part: "Everybody should be Italian at least once a year. Being Italian isn't just a nationality; it's a state of mind, a state of mind that says, 'Look, go out and grab life.'" As Maria read the rest of the quote to the Budgeteer, she choked up. "Italians are passionate people," she said. "Obviously, because I'm crying over my dad."

"It's a state of mind: Family is so important," she said. And so was the food. "In growing up, everything was based around food, she said. "You'd be looking forward to the next meal before you got up from the table."

"Our ancestors came over here. Most of them were masons, and they built things like St. Peter's Cathedral," said Patricia Kolojeski, who is Italian on her mother's side. Munger Terrace on Mesaba Avenue was built as a fancy townhouse in 1891-92 by Italian stonemasons.

The Italian American Club was instrumental in bringing bocce ball, an Italian outdoor bowling game, to Duluth. Mayor Fedo, an Italian, helped install lights and courts by Wheeler Field. Folks young and old are still playing bocce.

In the past, Italian heritage was a requirement to join the club.

"Right now, you have to be one-eighth Italian, or married to an Italian," explained Gary Kolojeski, the public relations manager for the group. For example, Kolojeski is not Italian, but his wife Patricia is a member of the Women's Auxiliary, which enabled him to join.

"Our membership is growing older, and we have to encourage young people to join," said Gary Kolojeski. This year the club has started to encourage non-Italians to join. "We think it's more important to embrace the culture than to be Italian," he said.

The Italian American Club's youngest member is 19.

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Roughly 25 people attend the men's club each meeting. "Last month we had more than 30. I had to run out to the store and get buns!" said Gary.

The Women's Auxiliary boasts higher numbers, averaging 40 members per meeting.

"Every meeting we have Italian food. We feed everybody, and we cook at every meeting. Last time we had sausage and salad and garlic bread. We eat well. What do Italians do more than eating?"

Kolojeski insists the men's group serves better food. "We don't have birthday cake day or whatever it is the ladies do. Our meetings are a little boring, but then we sit down and eat."

"I do different things [each meeting]," said Maria Illanardo, president of the Women's Auxiliary, "because it's just more fun. We do broad and different foods ... while the guys stick to [Italian] every time." Other foods include appetizers, or ice cream sundaes or sandwiches.

The Women's Auxiliary has different activities at meetings, such as matching members to their baby photos, bingo, door prize drawings and costume contests.

It's not just fun and games.

To give back to the community, the club awards scholarships to students each year. The scholarships are given to two high school students and one second-year college student of Italian heritage who do not receive any other major scholarships. Since its inception, the club has raised nearly $90,000 in scholarships. At first, scholarships amounted to only $50; now the club is able to award $1,500 scholarships.

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To raise money for the scholarships, the club hosts a spaghetti dinner every May, sells sausage and peppers sandwiches during Spirit Valley Days in August and hosts other fundraisers during the year. This year, the annual rummage and bake sale raised approximately $l,000. This year's spaghetti dinner fundraiser will be on Friday, May 18, from 3-7 p.m. at the American Legion Post #71 at 5814 Grand Ave. in Duluth.

The club also donates to various causes throughout the year. At each meeting, the Women's Auxiliary often collects Boxtops for Education, personal hygiene products for Safe Haven, and food items for the food shelf. It recently purchased a memorial brick for a veterans' memorial. It has donated to charitable walks/runs, other scholarship organizations and to the church, to name a few.

The club even has a choir, Musicali Cumpari, which sings standards like "Come Fly with Me" and Italian classics like "Volare" at various times of the year in nursing homes and apartment complexes. They began singing casually at meetings, and in 1981 began to perform for audiences outside of the club.

"It's all about the giggling and the laughing," said Illanardo.

The men's club meets at the American Legion Post #71 on Grand Avenue on the second Thursday of each month, while the Women's Auxiliary meets the last Wednesday of each month at Holy Family Catholic Church. Dues for both groups are less than $20 per year.

For more information on scholarships or to join, contact Gary Kolojeski at (218) 390-5090, gkoloj@yahoo.com or Maria Illanardo at (218) 343-4853.

If you go

What: Spaghetti Dinner

When: Friday, May 18 from 3 to 7 p.m.

Where: American Legion Post #71 at 5814 Grand Avenue

Why: to raise funds for scholarships

Italian American Club
Right to left: Diane Kettelhut, her mother Jennie, and her aunt Grace show that the Italian American Club is a great place to meet up with family. (Photo by Beth Koralia)

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